Water agencies deliver grim cutback message


Last updated 11/20/2007 at Noon

A crucial Southern California agricultural hub is bracing for lower crop yields and drought-stressed groves and vineyards as three local water districts prepare for a 30 percent supply cut ordered by the region’s wholesale agency.

Local water agencies that serve a vast agricultural area say they must soon comply with cuts mandated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. A failure to meet the supply cuts that take effect January 1 could financially cripple agencies and growers for years to come, officials say.

“There is no way we can fail in this program,” Keith Lewinger, general manager of the Fallbrook Public Utility District (FPUD), said during a recent meeting of the Fallbrook Rotary. “We only have a finite amount of water for our agricultural customers.”

Metropolitan is the wholesale agency that provides water from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to 18 million people in Riverside, San Diego and four other counties. Much of the region’s water supply comes from those distant, imported sources.

Speaking to about 50 members of the Fallbrook Rotary, Lewinger wore around his neck a sign bearing the word “Messenger,” a reference to the cliché about what can happen to bearers of bad news.

Lewinger quipped that he planned to wear a flak jacket to a presentation three days later at the Fallbrook High School performing arts center, a venue which seats about 500 people.

“I think it’s going to be standing room only,” he predicted. (See story about that meeting on page B-19).

The cuts to FPUD, which serves Fallbrook’s north and west sides, will affect about 600 growers who are part of a program that gives annual discounts to agricultural customers.

Distributed at the luncheon was a brochure produced by county agricultural experts that warned about the toll the irrigation cuts could have on California’s top avocado producing region.

“Avocado is a water-loving, high value crop,” Gary S. Bender, a farm advisor, wrote in his two-and-one-half-page advisory that noted the heightened vulnerability of wind-prone groves. “In one of our trials we cut the water back 10 percent and the [crop] yield went down 50 percent!”

Interest has been understandably high regarding the mandated supply cuts among the water agencies that serve the vast agricultural area that stretches from Temecula’s thriving wine country to the avocado- and citrus-covered hills of De Luz and Fallbrook.

Any failures to meet the cuts could more than double the cost of water to growers and agencies, warn Lewinger and other officials. Failures could also fuel the demise of the agricultural discount program, he said.

The popular program has saved San Diego County growers $100 million over the past 15 years and its future could hinge on whether it can produce conservation results during a regional drought that has now spanned eight years, Lewinger said.

The Rancho California Water District, which has about 1,700 growers and vineyards enrolled in the program, adopted the cuts November 8. That action followed a widely attended presentation in October.

Rancho directors say they are concerned by the potential impact of the cuts but also relieved that their district’s vast underground basins will provide a storage cushion that water districts to the south do not have.

Future shortages could prompt some water districts to declare a moratorium on building permits if agricultural supplies are cut further and limits are placed on residential and commercial customers, Lewinger said. He said FPUD directors might revise their water conservation ordinance next year if drought conditions worsen and further imported water cuts are required.

Directors of the Rainbow Municipal Water District, which serves parts of Fallbrook and Bonsall that flank Interstate 15 and Highway 76, are also expected to reexamine their building permit policies next year if imported supplies are still strained.

Rainbow directors had planned an October 22 community presentation in Bonsall, but that workshop was cancelled because the devastating Rice Canyon Fire began its sweep through the area later that day. Rainbow officials are planning to reschedule the session. They have not determined how many growers will be impacted by the water supply cuts in their district.

Lewinger said it is unknown if the recent fire damage to groves will lessen the water conservation pressure on the unaffected avocado and citrus growers. He said damage assessments are still being done in the Fallbrook and Rainbow districts. Any potential water savings could help ease the strain on existing agricultural operations that have been granted “hardship” status, he said.

“We’re trying to make things as easy as possible and I think Rainbow is doing the same thing,” he said.

Part of the difficulties, say Lewinger and other water agency officials, are the effects of future supply cuts from the Sacramento River-San Joaquin River Delta. Pumping cuts were recently ordered in a court decision aimed at protecting an endangered smelt from the hazards posed by Delta pumping.


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