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California Water Woes Persist

In a move that will affect crop production across much of the region, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California plans to end its discount program for agricultural irrigation water. The move, expected to be approved in October, will open the door to increased water costs for many farmers in the southern part of the state.

If adopted by the MWD board of directors, the proposal could reduce food production, as farmers struggle to pay higher water costs on top of soaring costs for fuel, fertilizer and other supplies.

Under the discount program, participating farmers now save about $100 an acre-foot of water in exchange for agreeing to cutbacks of as much as 30 percent when MWD water supplies are low. MWD imposed the 30 percent cuts for the first time this year.

Non-discount water sells for about $700 an acre-foot through MWD member water agencies. Discussion about eliminating the program has been going on since the beginning of 2008.

“We got grower reaction before this proposal was announced,” says Eric Larson, San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director. “Some of our county Farm Bureau members sat on a committee with MWD staff to help craft this program’s exit strategy. Before the proposed phaseout was sent for review to the MWD board, our own Farm Bureau board considered and approved the proposal.”

Water Reliability Comes With A Price

San Diego County farmers account for about two-thirds of the water sold through the MWD program. Many San Diego County farmers, however, were willing to pay higher rates for a more reliable water supply and will be unaffected by the program change.

Once the phaseout strategy is adopted, participating farmers can opt out of the discount program immediately, which also returns them to full water service. Or, they can stay in the program, and the discount will ramp down during a five-year period.

In western Riverside County, the impact of the discount water program phaseout will mean higher water bills, says Steve Pastor, Riverside County Farm Bureau executive director.

“Higher water prices mean just one more hurdle to jump,” he says. “We don’t have hard numbers right now on what this change will mean in our county or across Southern California.”

Farmers Face Tough Decisions

Larson says the state’s new water realities are forcing some tough business decisions on farmers about how to proceed into the next crop year.

“Painted into a corner, farmers will need to consider a higher level of water supply reliability, even with a 10 percent cut in delivery amounts, and whether they can pay a higher price for water,” he says.

California Farm Bureau Federation contributed information for this article.

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