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A Reader Writes by John C. Veysey: Water conservation can save us

April 29, 2002

We have entered a time when the limiting element to growth in Southern California is grounded by who has the water. Does the food and fiber grower have first rights, or will growth of 1 million new citizens each year lay a higher claim? How will the West share its water?

For sure water has been the lifeblood of our communities and agricultural empire. For over three generations we have had control of the water, but now we must make some decisions about a new future. There is not enough liquid gold to go around. A limited resource means that there is not enough to meet everyone's desires.

Each side is loaded with shining armor and legions of fighters to prevail in their persuasions. The coast from Santa Barbara to the Mexican boundary has the political power. Policy is so tilted toward their needs. We must be aware that Sacramento or Washington, D.C. can change the rules at any time.

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We Imperial Valley folks have history and legal claims because we were using the water well before the cities had increased needs. Both are mighty strong arguments, and each might be right. But still there is not enough water to go around. We must and will share for each to survive.

There is only one way to expand the availability of water for all the competing needs. I believe it is conservation, where one uses less to get the same job done. I have preached this same, unchanged story for many years. The question always is: "Can we have a greener, more productive Valley while using less water?" Yes, we farmers can. The tools are well known and not new anymore. Pumpbacks, "O" fall leveling, drip, sprinklers, etc., all help to expand our supplies.

All we need are a few rules of engagement, and they are: Keep the program fair, simple, feasible and inclusive. There are simply no other choices if you want farmers to farm, suppliers to supply and of course the employees to be employed.

How can the coastal people help out with this endeavor? We need their political power, their will and some guarantees along the way. We will need all their efforts in finding a way to handle a Salton Sea and its problems. We find a sea that is too big and too salty. By too big, the elevation is at flood stage. If a serious storm were to raise its level as Doreen or Kathleen did, we could break the dikes and flood many farms and geothermal interests. The sea must go down 3 feet or so for safety, but this will create a huge salt problem for fish and birds.

Sad as it may be, the sea will not be able to maintain an influx of 1 million acre/feet per year. Its budget of inflow will be less water, even if we didn't transfer more water to the coast. The coast must solve an important issue to keep the farm community with capital needed for true conservation.

I believe the "upfront" money was important but overlooked in the process of negotiation. There is another way the coast can be of help. That is underwriting the income stream for conservation. The coast must guarantee the cost of the tools we farmers will use to free up water for transfer.

Conservation vs. fallowing. There does not appear to be much of a choice here and clearly there is a true "win-win" for conservation.

I heard that fallowing doesn't contain the "f" word anymore, and that there is a belief that it will save the sea. I don't think so, but it could be a short-term solution. I don't think it is worth doing or that it solves the big picture.

Only through conservation can we solve other problems as well for the farm community. EPA and TMDL make a stream of letters that don't mean much to many people. But to farmers, they feel like a bottomless pit! The Environmental Protection Agency has decided that there are too many total maximum daily loads of materials such as soil, fertilizers, pesticides and dissolved minerals that hurt wildlife. They find it in drains and rivers as they flow from farms into the Salton Sea.

A plan for conservation could stop the overflow drain water and conserve it on our fields. It remains a rather simple solution for most of our problems. I believe the best for all is conservation!

>> JOHN C. VEYSEY is a Brawley farmer.

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