Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Empty Fields Fill Urban Basins and Farmers’ Pockets

Three generations of Al Kalin’s family have worked their 2,000 acres of carrots and sugar beets, wheat and alfalfa for almost a century in the Imperial Valley, a scorching swath of Southern California desert that was unfit for farming until water from the Colorado River was diverted here in 1901.

But now Mr. Kalin ... can continue to farm all their land, or they can stop farming some of it and earn more than $500 an acre — more than the market value of a crop like alfalfa in a given year — simply by not using the water required to nourish those crops. Water saved is sent on to thirsty cities and suburbs to the west: San Diego, Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

With water increasingly scarce in the West, some other communities are allowing farmers to sell their allotment of it for whatever price they can find, in some cases thousands of dollars for the amount it takes to grow an acre of a crop. But ... working farms provide jobs and income to their many suppliers. There are 450 farmers in the Imperial Valley, but half the jobs held by the 174,000 residents are tied to agriculture.

When land is idled, the communities around the farms can wither.
The Imperial Irrigation District, ... controls more water than any other place in the West — about 20 percent of the annual flow of the Colorado.
Less than 5 percent of Imperial County’s 500,000 acres of agricultural land has ever been idle at any given time, many residents believe that unrestrained water sales would unravel the fabric of the community.
Some Imperial Valley farmers objected to the restrictions and sued in state court.... That suit is pending.... The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is called Met and serves 17 million people, is paying Palo Verde Valley farmers seven times as much for water than what Imperial farmers receive from their irrigation district....

...The water’s price ranges from more than $200 to more than $500 per fallowed acre, though irrigating that same acre costs farmers far less. The district has not let the price go up, even as farmers see much higher prices paid elsewhere. The program is expected to end in 2017, when the cities’ needs can all be met through conservation.
Farmers in Palo Verde, who deal more directly with Met, receive a one-time payment of $3,170 to enroll an acre in the program and about $600 each year it is left fallow.
.. .
Palo Verde officials counter that their deal with Met included $6 million for a fund to create jobs; the fund’s director said it had filled about 60 by spending money to train truck drivers and invest in small businesses.
Ralph Strahm, ... is one of 100 Imperial farmers to enroll in the program.... When the price for water-intensive alfalfa drops, he does the math. If he would earn, at best, $75 more per acre than if he left the land fallow, he decides that the risk and work are not worth the return and offers to leave it idle.

At most, only 18,000 of Imperial’s 500,000 agricultural acres are in the program at the same time.
Higher prices give farmers an incentive to conserve. Economists believe that markets will help fix the uneven distribution of water around the West and may prompt a rethinking of the whole system.

An expanding geothermal industry in Imperial needs more water. And there are new uses for land: solar-power businesses file proposals almost weekly.

By Felicity Barringer
The New York Times www.NYTimes.com
October 23, 2010

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