Water for the Southwest/ Agriculture revisited. Water, taken from crops and given to cities, spells trouble for some

In the hot canyons of north Orange County -- where the dry air smells of tart, leafy lemon groves -- Jack Christensen used to pay $18,000 a year to water 120 acres of citrus. Last year, his water bill tripled to $60,000. And he expects water rates to double again in the next five years.

``The one thing that will put me out of business here in Brea is the cost of water,'' he says, kneeling under a tree to check a water-efficient, drip-style irrigation nozzle.

Like other farmers all over the West, and particularly in the Southwest, Mr. Christensen is competing with new industrial parks and housing tracts for the water his crops need. Such enterprises can pay more than he can.

Rapidly-growing Arizona cities are buying large tracts of farmland to use the land's water resources and to reduce some of the competition for scarce water, then allowing the land to lie fallow. In New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, cities and land developers are increasingly buying up water rights from farmers who can earn more by selling the water than by using it.

How much agriculture is the Southwest going to lose in the competition for water?

Some, but not much, in the view of most western agronomists.

Viewed as a whole, the picture for agriculture is optimistic enough. The Southwest still uses 85 to 90 percent of its water for irrigation, so even a small drop in irrigation use amounts to a large new supply for urban users.

Even if cities and farms competed for water in an open market, the consensus of many economists is that irrigation would be reduced by less than 10 percent. This could add at least 50 percent to urban supplies. And 10 percent less irrigation does not necessarily mean a 10 percent crop reduction. Improved water control, better irrigation and reclamation methods, and crops bred to require less water can spread water further than it now goes.

But such equations are not entirely reassuring in some water-scarce regions.

One growing Phoenix suburb, Mesa, recently bought 11,000 acres in Pinal County, a cotton-growing region between Tucson and Phoenix, for the water rights. During the past few months, a flurry of interest in such deals is estimated to involve as much as a third of the county's farmland.

People in Pinal's small cities are concerned that wealthy cities in the Tucson and Phoenix areas will drain Pinal of water it needs for its own growing economy.

``Water is getting scarce, and farming is on the way out,'' says Jim Hartigan, who represents the area in the Arizona House of Representatives and is chairman of the Agriculture Committee. ``But we need to have enough water to bring in other industries to replace agriculture.''

Wilbur Wuertz, who grows cotton, wheat, barley, and cattle in Pinal County, recently sold two-thirds of his land to Mesa for a better price than the acreage would ever fetch as farmland.

``I'm growing crops that the country doesn't really need [all are now in surplus], . . . and I'm depleting a precious water supply,'' he explains.

``There's a lot of water here,'' says Mr. Wuertz, ``plenty to develop the [surrounding] country. But it has got to come from agriculture.''

Representative Hartigan wants to make sure that the cities buying water continue paying taxes on the Pinal land they buy. He also wants a moratorium on such land sales until the legislature can study the implications.

``What's happening right now is not all that important, but we're setting the stage for another Owens Valley,'' he says, referring to the Sierra Nevada valley where Los Angeles secretly bought water rights early in this century. Los Angeles destroyed the valley's local economy, to slake its own growing thirst.

The specter of Owens Valley may be re peated in southern New Mexico. There, farmers are fighting El Paso, Texas's efforts to pump out New Mexican groundwater.

John Salopek, a pecan grower in New Mexico and chairman of Elephant Butte Irrigation district, feels El Paso is taking water the district needs.

``There are a lot of fine people here, people who have decent land, but they didn't drill [wells] before because they didn't have the money. Now they can't.''

Though recent wet years have given the area enough water at present, residents would probably have drilled wells for future dry years if they had known El Paso would be competing for their water. A federal judge has ruled New Mexico can't bar El Paso from its water, simply because El Paso is in another state.

Even when water is taken from agriculture for urban uses close at hand, the public sometimes objects.

A corporation can buy farmland to build a factory without public disapproval, explains agricultural economist Robert Young of Colorado State University. But when the same factory requires buying a farm's water rights, ``people become very nervous,'' he says.

Yet water generates few jobs when used for crops that have a low market value compared to the acreage and water needed to grow them. For example, a quarter of Colorado's irrigation is for alfalfa. Yet alfalfa creates only a few thousand jobs in the whole state. A single factory can provide the same number of jobs.

In the high plains area of the Texas panhandle, farmers face a different problem. There, the Ogallala aquifer -- which underlies parts of eight states, from which all the local water is drawn -- has been drained by half. As the water table drops, the pumping costs go up.

Farmers there are changing their irrigation style, according to Robert Sweazy, director of Texas Tech's Water Resources Center in Lubbock.

They get 95 percent irrigation efficiency (that is, 95 percent of the water was consumed by the crops) by using huge center pivoting arms with drop tubes that drop water under the crop canopy. They get 85 to 90 percent efficiency with ``surge furrow irrigation,'' -- filling dead-level fields rapidly and evenly.

Diking furrows to prevent runoff can also save six inches of water a year. The western states receive on the average only 20 inches of rain a year. The old furrow system, Dr. Sweazy says, was only 45 to 50 percent efficient.

Thus, the Ogallala water table has not been falling so fast in northern Texas and the upshot is that irrigated agriculture is likely to remain, if not expand, on the high plains in Texas for decades to come.

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