Monday, Oct. 1, 2007 | If the endangered delta smelt is the bellwether of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s ecological health, San Diego County growers play the same role for the region’s water supply.

With the threat of large cuts looming for water users across the region, thousands of avocado and citrus growers will take the first hit in January. They’ll have their supplies trimmed 30 percent, as the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District — the major supplier of San Diego’s drinking water — copes with a large cut anticipated next year.

The growers participate in a special pricing program with the water district. They get a discounted water rate — as much as 44 percent less — in exchange for agreeing to take the first cuts. Since the program began in 1994, growers have escaped the downside. No cutbacks have occurred; they’ve reaped only benefits. The California Avocado Commission, an industry group, estimates growers have saved $200 million.

But starting Jan. 1, the discount program will be put to its first test. And it will be under scrutiny from growers, water supply managers and public officials to see whether it can deliver the promised reductions.

“This is going to be a very painful period,” Ed Means, a California Avocado Commission consultant, recently told growers at a meeting to discuss agricultural water supply issues. “If we can’t demonstrate the value, the program will be at risk.”

In late August, a federal judge ordered a cut in the amount of water pulled out of the delta next year. The goal is to reduce pumping when the delta smelt, a three-inch fish listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, are likely to be nearby. The smelt’s population has crashed in recent years, and pumps that send water from the delta to Southern California are partly responsible for the declines. The judge’s decision could cut the amount of water exported from the delta by 37 percent.

If California has a wet, snow-filled winter, the effects here may not be so severe. Demand could decrease at the same time supplies increase. But if another dry winter besets the state and the delta delivers less water than normal, residential water users could see mandatory water restrictions. Those could range from only allowing homeowners to water their plants with a handheld hose to prohibiting all lawn irrigation.

But growers are taking the first cut.

“The growers that choose to do it agree that it’s worth the risk for the discount,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “The discount can be the difference between profit and loss for some growers. But you always know that [the shortage threat] is out there, and it’s happened.”

In response, growers say they have begun looking for more groundwater on their ranches, probing for wells to supplement water from Metropolitan, the main supplier to the San Diego County Water Authority. Others have started pruning their less productive avocado trees, including those that suffered frost damage earlier this year. Some say they will move away from avocados toward crops that require less water. The effect of the cut on profits remains uncertain.

“I don’t think we’ve been tested yet as to how hard it’ll hurt us,” said Burnet Wohlford, a Valley Center grower.

Wohlford said he expected to reduce the acreage he irrigates. Spreading 30 percent less water over the same area might keep avocado trees alive, he said, but they wouldn’t be productive.

The biggest threat will come next summer, when groves are the most reliant on irrigation, said Ralph Foster, a Fallbrook avocado grower.

“Winter won’t hurt,” he said. “But into the summer, all we need is a few Santa Anas and you’ll lose your whole crop.”

The avocado is a thirsty fruit. It’s native to tropical climates where rain provides plenty of water. But in arid San Diego, which has received barely 4 inches of rain in the last year, the fruit relies on irrigation.

During a landmark 1987-1992 drought that struck San Diego, growers lost 10,000 acres of avocados. A Riverside County grower said he expected the looming shortages to again have serious effects on the California avocado industry, which produces about $350 million in crops annually, according to industry estimates.

“It’s going to change the face of agriculture in San Diego County,” said Reed Webb, a Rancho California grower. “California growers are going to have to grow avocados efficiently or stop growing it.”

Most growers have already adopted efficient irrigation techniques. While many homeowners can still take steps to increase the efficiency of their outdoor irrigation, growers have already done so, as water is a major component of their overhead. Growers said their water bills constitute between 50 percent and 75 percent of costs.

Those bills will increase if growers fail to meet the reduction goals. Water suppliers say they will strictly enforce the 30 percent reduction, threatening a tripling of water prices as penalties. Growers who repeatedly exceed their allotment will have their water flow reduced.

The Metropolitan Water District does have concerns about how well farmers will heed the restrictions, said Brian Thomas, Metropolitan’s chief financial officer.

“There is uncertainty exactly how people will respond,” Thomas said. “From Met’s perspective, since it is a bunch of individual actions that have to roll up, there’s some uncertainty as to how much we’ll see.”

Metropolitan is currently developing a plan that will outline how much water would be delivered to agencies such as the San Diego County Water Authority if shortages are declared, Thomas said. The plan won’t be adopted until January. If the winter is dry, the plan wouldn’t be considered for implementation until early summer, he said.

If the state is blessed with a wet winter, though, Thomas said the agricultural cutbacks could be rescinded.

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