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Palo Verde area fallowing plan in the works by water agencies

July 07, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

BLYTHE — Two Southern California water agencies are working on a plan to provide coastal California with up to 3.63 million acre-feet of water over 35 years through farmland fallowing in the Palo Verde Valley.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Palo Verde Irrigation District are working out the details of the plan and the majority of farmers and landowners in this agricultural community must agree to the project.

The agreement would have Palo Verde Valley farmers fallow 7 to 29 percent of the area's cultivated land in any year at the request of MWD. The water that would have been used for farming would instead go to urban areas on the coast.

The unirrigated land would be maintained "in accordance with approved soil and water management plans," according to the MWD. Fallowed land would also be rotated once every one to three years.


The program would transfer 25,000 to 111,000 acre-feet of water each year.

About 60 farmers cultivate 91,400 acres in this community. The most popular crops are alfalfa and cotton with wheat, Sudan grass and some vegetables grown.

The Palo Verde Valley, like many agricultural communities, has seen a decline in the profitability of agriculture over the past decade, said Bart Fisher, PVID trustee and third-generation local farmer.

Therefore, a proposal such as this that would pay farmers to fallow their land could make a big difference to many farmers who have become "wards of the state almost," Fisher said.

"The economics is the main incentive," Fisher said.

Under the proposed program, MWD would pay farmers a one-time payment of $3,170 for each acre set aside, merely for signing up. There would be annual payments thereafter.

But while farmers and landowners may find the program attractive, some are concerned about third-party impacts that could hurt others in the community.

Mark Fulton, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce in Blythe, said businesses such as farm equipment and feed merchants could be hurt by the fallowing plan, as could farm workers.

"I think the farmers have made a good deal for themselves without thinking of the other businesses," Fulton said.

Fisher doesn't anticipate much impact on farm laborers. The crops likely to be taken out of production are already automated and less labor-intensive, Fisher said.

"There's a big investment in the infrastructure for the labor-intensive crops," Fisher said, explaining it wouldn't be profitable to let those investments go to waste.

A pilot program similar to this proposal was implemented in the Palo Verde Valley in the early 90s. Then, 22 percent of the area's cultivated acreage was fallowed for two years.

According to MWD, a study revealed a high proportion of the payments made to participating farmers was spent locally. Participants reported 93 percent of the money was spent on farm-related investments, purchases and debt repayment.

Additionally, MWD will invest a $6 million lump payment or over $16 million over time in the community. A local committee will determine how to spend the money.

In the Palo Verde Valley, the water rights are tied to the land, not the Palo Verde Irrigation District. Without the consent of farmers, there will be no deal with MWD.

So far, Fisher said, it's too early to forecast the response of farmers. Many are asking questions and looking for more detail, Fisher said.

"Water is the lifeblood of our Valley, our way of life," Fisher said, adding people are always cautious when it comes to moving water out of the area.

"The focus is on long-term security and viability to our way of life," Fisher said.

"I don't think anyone here is planning to take a check and head to Mexico to retire," Fisher said.

Because details of the plan are still being worked out, doubts and questions remain. Some farmers are uneasy about the length of the program, saying 35 years is too long. Others say instead of a lump sum paid to farmers in the beginning, payments spread over the life of the program would make it easier to sell the land.

As pressure on California to reduce its use of Colorado River water mounts, MWD and other water districts are exploring a variety of ways to secure water.

Past and proposed transfers of Imperial Irrigation District water to the coast are made through conservation, though that method is not the best option for the Palo Verde Valley, explained Dennis Underwood, MWD vice president of Colorado River resources.

Because the agricultural run-off from Palo Verde Valley farms runs back to the Colorado River, it gets reused by other agencies, such as IID, downstream. Therefore, fallowing is considered a better alternative in the Palo Verde Valley, Underwood said.

The run-off from Imperial Valley farms goes to the Salton Sea, not to the Colorado. IID officials are trying to find a way to mitigate the effects on the Salton Sea if in-flows are reduced by the transfer.

If the Palo Verde Valley plan goes through, it could be implemented as early as August 2002.

MWD's board is expected to approve the plan at its meeting this week.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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