Water agency’s land purchase rattles California farmers

21 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

California water agency’s land purchase rattles growers, highlighting farm-city tensions.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the nation’s largest drinking water distributor, bought nearly 13,000 acres of remote farms in July for $256 million, rattling farmers but giving it prized rights to the Colorado River. In 1922, Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming agreed to split deliveries with Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. Farmers recall how Los Angeles’ modern founders built an aqueduct a century ago to bring water hundreds of miles from rural Owens Valley, a story that was fictionally portrayed in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, “Chinatown.” “Are we going to dry up our rural, agricultural communities just to keep Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego growing? I think it would be a sad state of affairs,” said Bart Fisher, a melon and broccoli farmer who is board president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District. Metropolitan pays farmers about as much as they would profit to harvest — $771 an acre this year — to bring foregone Colorado River water on its 242-mile aqueduct to 19 million people in the coastal megalopolis it serves.

The dynamic changed when Metropolitan paid $256 million in July to nearly double its Palo Verde holdings to 29,000 acres, or about 30 percent of the valley. The agency denied its purchase from Verbena LLC, a company that bought the land several years earlier from the Mormon church, was part of an orchestrated plan. “It’s made the farmers out there nervous that we are the largest owner but there was a strategic opportunity that came up,” Metropolitan’s general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said. Metropolitan stirred similar angst this month in Northern California when its board expressed interest in buying farms on several islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. California cut its use of the river partly by having farms sell water to cities, bringing water from Lake Havasu to Lake Matthews in Riverside County on Metropolitan’s 242-mile aqueduct.

Thomas Blythe staked claim to the river in 1877, beating Southern California cities under a Gold Rush-era doctrine called ‘first in time, first in right.’ Los Angeles and its suburbs founded Metropolitan in 1928 to build the remarkably durable Colorado River Aqueduct. Parker Dam and the reservoir it created in Lake Havasu empties into a gray Art Deco-style building with nine pumps that quietly pipe water 300 feet up a steep slope.

The water goes uphill through four more pump stations and through tunnels, canals and pipelines before reaching Southern California’s coastal plain two days later. Last year, the river supplied two-thirds of the 1.7 billion gallons of drinking water that Metropolitan delivers daily, up from a third three years earlier. California took more than it was entitled to until Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas clamored for their share and forced the nation’s most populous state to go on a diet in 2003.

Metropolitan says it won’t have to pay someone else to idle the land it now owns and will lease it to farmers, cutting its net cost to about $50 million.

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