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Farmers May Reap Cash for Water Rights
Under an MWD Proposal, They Would Be Paid for Not Planting Some of Their Land.

By Mark Henry
The Press-Enterprise, Saturday, July 7, 2001

BLYTHE
The plan sounds simple: The Metropolitan Water District wants to pay Palo Verde Valley farmers not to grow melons, alfalfa and other crops on thousands of acres to free up water for Southern California's thirsty cities.

If it succeeds, the water transfer from the farm-rich valley near the Arizona border would be the largest of its kind and duration in the state, MWD officials said Friday during a briefing for local officials, farmers and media.

The plan, which is far from a done deal, would divert up to 111,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year, enough for about 220,000 homes. And it would help provide a flexible and reliable drinking water supply for 17 million people, MWD officials said.

In return, the MWD would pay $84 million up front to 65 to 70 agricultural landowners who sign up for 35 years, plus payments for each acre that is not farmed in a given year. The water agency also would spend $6 million on community improvements; a vocational education center is a possibility.

Some locals worry that leaving as much as 29 percent of the farmland barren would have a ripple effect in the Blythe area, ranging from the loss of farm jobs to environmental and health risks caused by blowing dust from fallow fields.

But many farmers see it as reliable income and the best way to continue farming and preserve a way of life for about 20,000 people in a valley that depends on agriculture for its survival, especially during recent hard times.

"In our minds, we're securing our future," said Bart Fisher, a third-generation farmer whose grandfather started a ranching business in the valley in 1917. "We look upon this as an insurance policy to ensure our lifestyle and our community."

Palo Verde farmers and MWD officials say they are facing up to a reality that requires California to reduce its dependence on the Colorado River. The MWD is working deals all over Southern California to shore up supplies for the region's fast-growing population.

"The needs of the residential populations out to the west of us are going to be answered in some fashion," said second-generation farmer Bob Hull. "Either we find ways to allow water transfers economically, or the courts are going to find a way to take water from us."

Hull said he expects to accept the MWD's offer, but he's ambivalent about the prospect of not farming some of his land each year.

"Quite honestly, my initial response to this thing is like a wave of depression," he said. "Economically, it may be beneficial to me. On the other hand, this isn't what I do.

"One of the reasons you suffer through farming for all the bad years is because you feel there's some value beyond what you get paid for. The pleasure of working the land, the idea that you are providing food for people."

Farmers also are taking a risk in signing up for so many years, Hull said, noting his own son would be 58 years old when the agreement expired.

"You get down to those later years and it's going to look like a really good deal or a really bad deal," he said. "All the up-front money will be all gone."

Fisher, a Palo Verde Irrigation District trustee involved in negotiations with the MWD, said it's hard for farmers to relate to the question of whether it's right to stop growing food so cities can have water, "when all we see is the inundation of the market by foreign-produced food and fiber."

Mark Fulton, executive vice president of the Blythe Area Chamber of Commerce, is among those who worry that the program will cut into buying power and hurt local business. He also wonders about the impact of blowing dust from fields that have been sprayed with pesticides.

"If you look on the Internet on Owens Valley, you see the horror stories there of what it's done," he said Monday of the area near Lone Pine about 230 miles north of Los Angeles. "Now it's just an alkaline dust bowl."

Hull, Fisher and other farmers assure that will not happen in the Palo Verde Valley. They would leave a crop, such as wheat, on a field and cut it down to stubble to prevent dust and wind erosion.

Farmers would rotate crops at least every three years to prevent land from falling into disuse and building up salt deposits.

And instead of hurting the local economy, the initial payment from the water transfer would help them repay huge debts from the past few years, increase pay and provide money for new farm equipment, several farmers said.

"I don't believe I'll employ any less people, because I'll still have to maintain that ground," said Joseph Johns, who farms alfalfa, cotton and Sudan grass on 3,000 acres that he owns and leases. "I'll be able to give them decent raises, which we haven't been doing because farming has been so tough."

The value of Palo Verde crops declined from $102.9 million in 1997 to $90.39 million in 1999, the latest figures available, according to the Riverside County Agricultural Commissioner's Office. Locals blame the downturn on foreign competition, the North American Free Trade Agreement and hard times in general. The valley grows an array of crops, mainly alfalfa, hay, vegetables and melons.

The MWD says it would probably want about 25,000 acre-feet of water in the first years of the agreement when Colorado River surpluses are still available. At the minimum, farmers would not grow crops on about 7 percent of their farmland.

The amount of water the MWD needs could spike during a drought and decrease in wet years. It could divert a maximum of 111,000 acre-feet of water from the valley per year, said Dennis Underwood, an MWD vice president.

The MWD could require farmers not to grow crops on up to 29 percent of the land for any 10 years of the agreement and up to 26 percent of the land in other years. The maximum amount of farmland left fallow in any year would not exceed 26,500 acres.

The plan must meet state environmental guidelines and calls for the MWD to study how the water transfer would affect the environment. The water agency's directors will consider the proposal Tuesday. The water transfer could start as early as August 2002, Underwood said.

"My first reaction was, `We're getting something jammed down our throats by a thousand-pound gorilla,' " Blythe Councilman Charles "Chuck" Grotke said after attending a briefing on the plan at the Palo Verde Irrigation District headquarters. "What I heard today basically lays all those fears aside."

Mark Henry can be reached at e-mail at mhenry@pe.com or by phone at (760) 325-1154.