Drought sparks water-use debate, climate-change speculation. Irrigation vs. urban use in California

Northern California residents, facing drought-induced water-use reductions of 25 percent, are looking longingly at the billions of gallons of water available to California farmers. Much of that irrigation water is being wasted, environmentalists charge. The Sierra Club's David Fullerton points out that a 2 percent drop in agricultural water use would meet all of California's urban needs for a year.

California faces its second major drought in the last 10 years, and northern California cities are imposing water-use restrictions or at least voluntary conservation plans.

While reservoirs have enough water for now, a number of northern California water districts have imposed mandatory water rationing as protection against more dry weather next winter.

Northern California rain and snowfall levels were down 50 percent in 1987 and so far this year the shortfall is 35 percent.

Environmentalists charge that the state's agribusiness is wasting water that could be used to forestall the urban water shortage. Agriculture accounts for 83 percent of water use in the state, and California agriculture is dominated by large corporate farms.

Tom Graff, staff counsel with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), says that, historically, agricultural interests have cared more about a regular flow of irrigation water than its efficient use. For decades, federal subsidies kept water prices extremely low and water waste high.

But in 1982 federal water subsidies to those farming more than 960 acres began to be phased out, forcing the larger operators to pay higher prices. About half of California's farmers receive subsidized water from federal contractors or the state water project.

Others receive non-subsidized water. To save money, many farmers now use water more efficiently by recirculating irrigation water and through other conservation methods. But where water prices remain low, billions of gallons are still wasted.

For example, the water district serving the Imperial Valley, in the southeast corner of the state, delivers extremely cheap water at $10 per acre-foot.

In Kern County, a major agricultural area in the southern Central Valley, farmers pay between $30 and $60 an acre-foot for their water. (An acre-foot is water one foot high spread over an acre, or approximately 326,000 gallons.)

The Imperial Irrigation District is negotiating a water conservation deal with the Metropolitan Water District (MWD, southern California's main water agency) which would pay Imperial to line their canals and otherwise conserve water.

Imperial would pipe water into the MWD system, which serves Los Angeles. The additional water could potentially supplant water currently being diverted from northern California, thus benefiting the entire state. Much water seeps out of Imperial Valley's earthen canals and goes into the ground where it is lost.

By lining the canals with concrete, building reservoirs and conserving on the farms, studies indicate the water district could save about 400,000 acre-feet a year.

The potential conservation from Imperial Valley alone would provide enough water for all of San Francisco and its southern suburbs. But negotiations have dragged on for four years with the two sides unable to agree on a price for Imperial's water.

Environmentalists and Imperial Valley farmers hope the current drought will spur action and that an agreement will be reached soon.

Bill Dubois is an Imperial Valley farmer as well as a Sacramento lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau. He admits that the Imperial canals waste water, but maintains that, in general, farmers handle their water efficiently.

``Ask a farmer if he conserves water,'' says Mr. Dubois, ``and he'll look at you funny. Does Coca-Cola conserve sugar? We use what we need.''

``Farmers use the best methods that are economical,'' he adds.

As California looks toward the next century, the water controversy is sure to grow. A state government report ``California Water Looking to the Future'' predicts that California's population will grow 38 percent by 2010.

To meet the state's water needs, it recommends improved conservation, better use of agricultural technology, more water transfers and construction of new dams. Some agribusinessmen are skeptical about water transfers; environmentalists fear new dams will harm the wild rivers and fish hatcheries.

The battles will likely continue despite today's drought conditions. The situation hasn't changed much since the days of Mark Twain who reportedly said, ``In the West whiskey is for drinking, but water is for fighting over.''

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