Water transfer focus of CAFA annual meet

When the California Alfalfa and Forage Association (CAFA) began searching for a speaker at its annual meeting in San Diego, it tapped a nearby source well-versed on a complex issue. The meeting at the combined, National and California Alfalfa Symposium, and William DuBois from the Imperial Valley accepted the task of explaining the water transfer agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and San Diego County Water Authority.

At one time DuBois farmed 2,000 acres in the Imperial Valley before becoming “just a farm owner.” A natural resources consultant for the California Farm Bureau Federation, he describes himself as someone interested in “helping a very large water transfer get completed without financial damage to any landowner, farmer or any other farm related business in Imperial County.”

New board members

Before DuBois spoke, however, CAFA launched its meeting attended by approximately 100 people with a presentation to former board member Jim Kuhn of Kuhn Farms, El Centro, Calif. Kuhn is one of two founding members of the CAFA who have stepped down from the board. The other is Joe Rominger of Winters.

Kuhn was recognized for his service by CAFA Chairman Jess Dancer of Macdoel. Danny Walker of JCSD Farms, Westmorland replaced Kuhn as a grower board member in the low desert, while Robert Ferguson of Ferguson Farms, Stockton, replaced Rominger as a board member in the north central region.

CAFA uses its annual meeting to announce the results of district elections. Four of the eight growers on CAFA's board are up for election each year and serve a two-year term. John Bennett of Dorris was re-elected to a second term in the intermountain region, while Philip Bowles of Bowles Farming, Los Banos, replaced Johnny Tacherra of Burrel in the south central region.

New agreement

DuBois reviewed the factors that shaped the recent water transfers from the desert to Southern California cities. About 10 years ago the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and Department of Water Resources (DWR) said too much water was being wasted. They urged the IID to find a buyer to finance improvements to reduce inflow to the Salton Sea, the end point for drainage water. The Metropolitan Water District made the improvements, which included cement lining of dirt canals, in return for about 106,000 acre feet of water per year for 35 years. It reduced some of inflow to the Salton Sea, noted DuBois. But, “it only partly satisfied the tremendous need for water on the coast.”

Responding to pressure for more water, the IID and San Diego County Water Authority crafted a proposal for 200,000 acre feet per year. Things began to unravel when a key part of the proposal, “no fallowing of farmland,” fell by the wayside. Environmentalists argued that the Salton Sea should be maintained to support bird habitat.

The IID was forced to take land out of production in order to move 200,000 acre feet of water and preserve the Salton Sea. When the SWRCB granted the transfer, said DuBois, it required that Salton Sea inflows be maintained for at least 15 years of the 45-year contract by fallowing and bypassing water directly to the Sea.

There are major questions such as, “how to select fields to be fallowed and how much each field's operator should be paid. There's considerable disagreement as to who bears how much of the cost of paying people not to farm their land and who makes up the income lost by the people who own, and those who operate idle tractors, hay balers, threshing machines, and the trucks that hauled the products to market.” The financial impact could be $1.8 billion during the 15 years of fallowing.

Fallowing isn't the only bone of contention, with water rights at the top of the list. “Some farmers think ownership belongs with the land and its individual owners,” DuBois pointed out. “Some think they should be able to sell their rights individually.”

The IID believes the transfer agreement will lay the foundation for future California water issues. But DuBois noted that “a substantial part of the landowners and farmers” have filed suit against the transfer. The Imperial County Board of Supervisors also filed suit, with their concerns centering on who's responsible for dust control and aesthetic and health loses to people who live near the Salton Sea when it partially dries up.

“We won't even know, probably for many months, whether the lawsuits will upset any part of the transfer or all of it,” said DuBois. Cost of the legal action will be in the millions of dollars with landowners and farmers bearing most of the cost.

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