U.S. Water News Online
FRESNO, Calif. -- In a state where water has
become an increasingly scarce commodity, a growing number of
farmers are betting they can make more money selling their
water supplies to thirsty cities and farms to the south than
by growing crops.
The shortages this season -- among the most intense of
the last decade -- are already shooting water prices skyward
in many areas, and Los Angeles-area cities are begging for
water and coaxing farmers to let their fields go to dust.
"It just makes dollars and sense right now," said Bruce
Rolen, a third-generation farmer in Northern California's
lush Sacramento Valley. "There's more economic advantage to
fallowing than raising a crop."
Instead of sowing seeds in April, Rolen plans to leave
his rice stubble for the birds and sell his irrigation water
on the open market, where it could bring up to three times
the normal price.
"It's been a good decade since there's been this much
interest in buying and selling water on the open market,"
said Jack King, national public affairs manager for the
California Farm Bureau Federation. "We're prepared to see
significant fallowing in several key parts of the state."
Water from Northern California rivers irrigates most of
the country's winter vegetables and keeps faucets flowing in
the Los Angeles area. But it must be shipped south through a
complex network of pumps, pipes and aqueducts, and that
system recently developed a kink when a federal judge
ordered new restrictions on pumping to save a threatened
As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California legislators
argue about how to solve the state's water crisis, the
bottleneck has sent the demand for water soaring in cities
and farming districts far to the south.
Residents of Long Beach can't run fountains, and it's now
illegal for restaurants to serve customers a glass of water
unless they ask for it.
Near Bakersfield, the shortages are expected to force
some almond and pistachio growers to triage which of their
nut trees should survive.
And cities across California are drawing down underground
stashes meant to carry them through dry years just to avoid
any new purchases.
The high premium for water has been especially painful
for those served by Los Angeles' massive Metropolitan Water
District, whose other main source of water, the Colorado
River, is in its eighth year of drought. The agency recently
proposed a rate hike for next year of 10 to 20 percent on
the water it sells to cities.
Prices have jumped from the $50 per acre foot typical in
wet years to as much as $200 per acre foot said Dean
Reynolds, a scientist who oversees water transfers for the
Department of Water Resources.
"We're moderately nervous," general manager Jeff
Kightlinger said. "We haven't prepared ourselves should we
run into really severe droughts, so we're trying to
formulate that now."
Officials in the Southern California suburb of Maywood
are protesting the price hikes, which they say will force
them to put off fixing corroded pipes that leach manganese
into the water supply. "You go to any water tap in Maywood
and you open it up and it looks like iced tea," Mayor Felipe
That kind of desperation is pushing up demand for water
from farmers further north, especially in the green rice
fields north of Sacramento and along the San Joaquin
Valley's western edge. Well-supplied water agencies like
Rolen's Glenn Colusa Irrigation District are looking to
sell, trade or exchange their water in time for the spring
Some environmental groups say that isn't a viable
The problem should be fixed by retooling a decades-old
formula that gives farmers a break on their contracted
water, even in times of scarcity, they say.
"Essentially these farmers are getting water for a
subsidized price and selling it to taxpayers at an elevated
rate," said Renee Sharp, senior analyst with the
Environmental Working Group, an Oakland-based nonprofit that
tracks farm subsidies. "On the other hand, the more often
water agencies are scrambling to buy water, the more they
get interested in some creative solutions, like
So far, conservation efforts and a set of storms earlier
this month have helped replenish dwindling reservoirs and
stave off a need for rationing. But even Rolen, who expects
to harvest a bumper crop next year after idling 100 acres of
his rice fields, says selling water is only a temporary fix
to the problem.
"The state is growing almost exponentially and we have
never totally satisfied agricultural water needs in the San
Joaquin Valley and the southern part of the state," he said.
"I hate to say it, but the supplies that we have now are
just tapped out on a good year."
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