water in field

EL CENTRO — After nearly two hours of contentious debate, the Imperial Irrigation District board voted unanimously July 9 on a hybrid plan to lower payments made to farmers for their on-farm conservation program.

The purpose for conserving water was not necessarily the drought conditions of the past two decades, but the 2003 QSA in which the San Diego County Water Authority received transferred water from the Valley via Metropolitan Water District (MWD), first through fallowing then as growers geared up, to conserved on-farm water.

Initially, farmers had been contracted $285 per acre/feet for conserved water and the IID welcomed all participants. However, due to the farmers’ innovation and ingenuity, the total acre/feet saved the past three years exceeded the amount needed for the QSA transfer.

“What was conserved in 2019 was more than the whole transfer amount at the ramp-up which would be 205,000 acre/feet in 2022,” IID water manager Tina Shields said. The projected on-farm conserved water for 2019 is 221,000 acre/feet.

The district had approximately 146,000 acre/feet of existing conservation between their system and fields converted to solar. Since the IID is not being part of the Drought Contingency Plan, its ability to store extra conserved water is non-existent.

“What happens to the conserved water above the QSA requirement?” Eric Reyes of Brawley asked the board. He was told it flowed to the MWD — for free. 

Besides over-conserving without any ability to store the water for future use, the IID had depleted their QSA revenue reserves from a high of $62M in 2013 to $8.3M in 2019. If the price remained the same and amount conserved continued to rise, the reserves would have a $3M deficit.

In preparation to stop fallowed water as of 2017, and for growers to conserve on-farm water, hundreds of thousands of dollars and into the millions were spent on sprinkler pipes, drip lines, pumps, labor and auxiliary materials to conserve water according to many comments made by farmers.

Bobby Bunch, branch manager of the farm irrigation supply business Rain for Rent, said at the meeting that he had never had so many new customers, all buying product for water conservation. 

The IID previously had asked the Water Conservation Advisory Board (WBAC), composed of local growers, for recommendations on how to stop the bleeding with over-conservation and running a $3M deficit. 

“We have only over-conserved the past three years. We are being punished for our efforts and we need to find places to store our (conserved) water,” Steve Benson, a Brawley farmer, told the board during the meeting. 

On Tuesday, the farmers’ plan and IID staff’s plan were on the agenda. The staff’s plan was a drastic cut to the farmers with a 70% reduction coming in at $85 acre/feet; the WBAC plan came in with a revenue-friendlier plan. Allowing for inflation, the $285 would be $314 acre/feet, and the uncontracted payment for water conservation would be $203 acre/feet. Both plans kept the reserves out of the red and both honored the contracts already signed for crops planted in 2019 but not harvested until 2020.

Brawley farmer Andrew Colace said he might have to lay off people he hired, and conservation efforts would drastically fall. He said he couldn’t afford to lay sprinkler pipe in sugar beets at the prices offered.

However, Director Jim Hanks proposed a third choice, one not as drastic as the staff’s proposal but not as generous as the WCAB’s. The farmers present felt they had been treated unjustly by the District after investing capital in water-reducing equipment and securing loans for the same amount proposed by Hanks, $125 acre/feet, would not pay to conserve. 

Many farmers also said they had no time to study Director Hanks proposal as it had only been shown that day.

Nevertheless, the board voted to approve Hanks’ hybrid offer, with the promise of this measure only being for 2020. IID staff would immediately begin crunching numbers to develop the following year’s plan so farmers could budget and make decisions farther in advance.

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