Drought Leads to Water Woes for Southland Farmers

This week, lawmakers in Sacramento postponed a vote on a water bond. It would have raised money to help California store more water during wet years to use during the dry ones. That long-term approach makes sense, but it doesn't do much for a water crisis that's just around the corner. Southern California will soon lose about a third of its water supply. Blame that on the persistent drought – and on a federal court order in an environmental case. Whatever the reason, the water cutbacks will be here soon – and KPCC's Julie Small reports Southland farmers are already feeling the pain.

Steve Pastor: The mood is gloomy. It's understandable. It's not going to be business as usual when these water cutbacks take effect.

Julie Small:That's Steve Pastor. He's the executive director of the Riverside County Farm Bureau, and he says, in just a few days, some growers will have to figure out how and what they can grow with 30% less water. That's what's coming in December. Pastor says some farmers will just plant fewer acres, but others can't just choose to grow a little less.

Pastor: The permanent crops, like the avocado trees ... the citrus trees, the wine grapes, the table grapes; it's going to be a little more difficult to keep those crops going because they can't change them out like they can with row crops or field crops. They can take those crops and cut back somewhat, but on permanent crops it's going to be a little more difficult to get the watering to save a lot of the trees.

Small: The cutbacks in water headed south were ordered by the Metropolitan Water District. That's the giant L.A.-based agency that brings most of Southern California its water. MWD's Debra Man says the contracts they're cutting with agricultural customers in Southern California cover surplus water. The farmers get a discount when it's a wet year. But, this isn't a wet year.

Debra Man: We are experiencing record dry conditions, not just here in Southern California, but in the eastern Sierras and also in the watersheds of the Colorado River.

Small: The regional drought means MWD can't buy surplus water from neighboring states to shore up Southern California's supplies. They don't have any surplus water to sell. But farmers in California's Central Valley do, and MWD is willing to buy it. It did that in 2003 and again two years later. It worked out for the Central Valley farmers. They made more money selling water than they did tilling soil. But that should tell you something: The cost of Southern California water is probably going up.

Man: If the dry conditions continue and we have to invest in getting additional supply insurance to maintain reliability, then we expect that that's gonna mean that we have to expend more money. And if we spend more money for that insurance, that will have a potential increase in the rates.

Small: MWD's water rates are locked in until the end of next year. If the drought persists, MWD's higher cost of getting water will likely flow to consumers in one way or another. The Riverside County Farm Bureau's Steve Pastor says growers in the hot and dry Inland Empire could switch to drip irrigation. They could use technology that signals when soil's moist.

Pastor: Farmers are pretty ingenious, and they'll come up with ways to water their crops with less water, I can guarantee it, to stay in business, and this is just another monkey wrench in the works right now. We've been hammered with a deep freeze, we've had the tremendous winds that knocked a lot of fruit off the trees, and now the water cutback. So, agriculture's, it's going to get harder to make a living at it. It's going to get very, very lean and you may watch the price of food go up.

Small: It's not all gloom and doom. California's water reserve is deeper now than it was during the last major drought in 1990, and Southern California is pretty good at conservation. Los Angeles County today uses the same amount of water it did 20 years ago, even though another four million people are lined up at the faucet. Soon we'll find out if L.A. County, and everyone else in Southern California, can use even less.