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Bureau: Fallowing is better option

October 31, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer
  • Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, explains options to reducing inflow into the Salton Sea. DON THOMPSON PHOTO
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It could just be that fallowing local farmland to generate water to save the Salton Sea might be considered a reasonable and beneficial use of water.

At the very least the issue is being discussed more openly in the community.

The topic of fallowing and its economic impacts on the Imperial Valley were discussed at a joint meeting Tuesday of the Imperial Irrigation District's community advisory committee and Imperial Valley United.

"We think fallowing is a better option for everybody," said Robert Johnson, regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation. The benefits of fallowing, versus extraordinary water conservation methods such as pumpback systems, are reduced environmental impacts on the Salton Sea and improved local economics, he said.

"We see a lot of good reasons why fallowing should be implemented, but we leave that up to you," he added.

The presentation on fallowing's economic impacts was made by Tom Kirk, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, Johnson and Alan Kleinman, regional Reclamation economist for the lower Colorado basin.

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Kirk said the economic study — which has been modified since it was presented to the Salton Sea Authority board of directors two weeks ago — says the economic impacts would be short-term, though he is unsure how economists define short-term.

The study assesses the impacts of fallowing 50,000 acres planted in hay and planted with the full line of crops, including vegetables, melons and specialty crops.

By fallowing vegetable lands, about 1,400 people would lose their jobs, including 550 farm workers, 700 through third-party impacts and 150 through induced, or ripple effect, losses.

By fallowing hay/Sudan grass, about 490 total jobs would be lost, including 280 farm workers, 150 through third-party impacts and 60 through induced impacts.

Those job losses are about 2 percent of the Valley's about 60,000 jobs.

There also would be job gains, Kirk said, resulting from construction projects associated with restoring the Salton Sea. He said about 125 total jobs would be created, with a net of about 366 lost jobs, through fallowing hay land, the preferred option because of the large amount of cropland in hay.

Kirk did not minimize the job losses.

"It's a particular issue to those who lose their jobs and to their families," he said.

The way to deal with such losses is to look at the amount of money the community could receive through the lease of fallowed land and sale of water. Using the same price as in the IID/San Diego County Water Authority transfer agreement, $250 per acre-foot, Kirk said the community would be left with about $17.6 million yearly after payments of $137 per acre-foot per year to farmers and $25 per acre-foot per year to the IID for lost water and power sales.

With that $17.6 million, that is $88 per acre-foot per year, multiplied by 200,000 acre-feet per year, the study suggests the community could pay each employee who lost his job $15,000, for a total cost of $5.5 million. Then the community could spend an equal amount on training, and finally use the remaining $6.6 million for low-interest loans, to attract new business and reduce water and power rates.

"It's up to you," Kirk said.

Over the long term, Kirk said $17.6 million yearly would go a long way.

Some in the audience agreed, others disagreed with the concept of fallowing.

CAC member Heidi Kuhn said if third-party job losses are severe enough, a threshold would be reached that would lead agriculture-related businesses to leave the Valley. She also said fallowing is a slippery slope, and once begun, it will be used again to generate more water.

Heber-area farmer Steve Scaroni pointed out the economic benefits of fallowing from the example of the fallowing program carried out in the Palo Verde region 10 years ago.

Reclamation economist Kleinman said the benefits from that program were included in the current study and agreed that many farmers "paid a lot of back bills," but that 50 percent of payments made directly to farmers are spent outside the local area.

Johnson was asked how water from fallowing could be used for the Salton Sea in light of federal legislation prohibiting such use.

He said in this particular case, the water would not be from the Colorado but from the state and IID apportionments. He said Reclamation is willing to float the test balloon on the issue.

Johnson was then asked if fallowed water were used for restoring the sea, would that mean that such a use is "reasonable and beneficial," a term used to challenge the use of IID's water by outside water agencies.

"I didn't say that," Johnson responded, adding that the idea is a "tenuous proposition."

Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.

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