Growers warned of water cutbacks

Scenario is bleak at industry forum

San Diego Union Tribune – By Elena Gaona

–ESCONDIDO – From letting flowering plants die to reducing production of milk, oranges and avocados, county farmers are bracing for a potentially disastrous cutback of water supplies.

Nearly 500 farmers, ranchers and nursery owners attended two talks on the subject in Escondido yesterday, many expecting to face mandatory 30 percent reductions in water supplies starting Jan. 1.

Growers said it will hurt production, sales and possibly cause layoffs. If the water cutbacks get worse, some said they could go out of business.

“It’s going to be a very painful program,” Ed Means, a water consultant with the California Avocado Commission, told farmers.

“That’s to be clear.”

Unofficially since 1981, and officially since 1994, most growers in the county have participated in the voluntary Interruptable Agricultural Water Program. It has been good to agriculture, Means said, saving the industry $200 million since 1994 through discounted water rates.

Under the program, however, growers must agree to be the first to face mandatory cutbacks during droughts or other water shortages.
That time is here, Means said.

The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies imported water to the county, has proposed the 30 percent cuts in agricultural supplies to prevent shortages for residential and industrial users, and to make sure there is enough water for next year. An official order is expected in November.

In addition to hot, dry weather, water supplies are threatened because the Colorado River is in the midst of an eight-year drought, and because a U.S. District Court judge ruled last month that pumps sending water south from Northern California must be turned off from December to June to protect the Delta smelt, an endangered fish.

“Without water, you’re dead,” said Janet Gallup, who owns a 3-acre grove in Valley Center with her husband, Don. “I didn’t know about the cuts. It could be kind of disastrous.”

The San Diego County Farm Bureau, California Avocado Commission and San Diego County Flower and Plant Association sponsored yesterday’s talks at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. Farmers listened solemnly, and several asked why households weren’t doing more to save water.

They later walked around a trade show-style setup, gathering information from water agencies about how much water they will be allocated during the cutbacks, which would be indefinite.

Sellers of drip irrigation systems, mulch suppliers and other companies handed out information about water conservation.
But water-saving methods will not help farmers much during this crisis, said Kevin Grangetto, who owns farm and garden supply stores in North County.

“The farming community is already well aware of its water usage,” he said, adding that his business will be affected once his customers start scaling back production.

“We’ve already put a lot of attention into water conservation,” said Mike Mellano, vice president of production with Mellano & Co., a large outdoor grower near Fallbrook that uses computerized irrigation systems.

Mellano said he will look into purchasing recycled water, but ultimately the plan will include cutting out plants. “There is no fallback,” he said.

Eric Larson, the farm bureau’s executive director, said local water agencies must meet their 30 percent goal. If they don’t, he said, the agricultural water program could be in jeopardy. Farmers who surpass allocations will suffer penalties and flow restrictions.

“This is open-ended,” Larson warned. “Let’s not believe this will be over in a year or that it will be over in 18 months.”

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