Clever water trade saves citrus trees in Terra Bella area

The Fresno BeeJune 5, 2014 

A drought-inspired water swap will likely save hundreds of citrus orchards in the rolling hills of Tulare County, but it won't come cheap for desperate farmers.

Terra Bella growers were facing the summer without San Joaquin River water in a region with almost no well water. Terra Bella Irrigation District leaders feared thousands of acres of trees would be lost, amounting to a $59 million hit.

Now the farmers are getting 5,400 acre-feet of water, which will be added to other smaller water trades that will give them about half of what they usually use, according to the irrigation district.

In this complex water deal, they'll be paying $1,200 per acre-foot that will cover costs of returning the water to a Kern County water district. The bill is about six times higher than the usual acre-foot price, but it beats losing all those trees.

"It's good news," said general manager Sean Geivet of the Terra Bella district. "But it's still a tough time here because $1,200 per acre-foot of water is a lot of money."

Each acre-foot -- 326,000 gallons -- is jealously watched now in California as the nation's leading agriculture belt prepares for a hot, dry summer. A University of California at Davis study last month estimated farm losses at $1.7 billion this year because of the ongoing drought.

Terra Bella growers already had weathered a killing freeze in December. When the rain stopped for two months in winter, they scrambled.

Terra Bella district leaders talked with the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District in Kern County. Arvin-Edison talked with the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority in Merced County.

Then, for the first time in their histories, Arvin-Edison and the Exchange Contractors -- 170 miles apart -- arranged a deal to move water down the Friant-Kern Canal to Terra Bella.

Water will be returned to Arvin-Edison over the next several years as long as precipitation is near average. Terra Bella has agreed to return five acre-feet of water for each acre-foot of water it receives now -- in other words, 25,000 acre-feet will be returned.

Steve Collup, Arvin-Edison general manager, said the drought has created the need to change the way business is done.

"I think this water transfer shows that nobody can be isolated from the rest of agriculture these days," said Collup.

Steve Chedester, executive director of the Exchange Contractors, agreed: "We need to be as helpful as we can. No money changed hands for us. We weren't doing this for money."

But farmers are paying the $1,200 per acre-foot as part of a fund to pay operations, maintenance and other costs to return water in the future, said Geivet.

Here's how the deal works:

Arvin-Edison has some Northern California water in San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County. The Exchange Contractors, who farm on the San Joaquin Valley's west side, agreed to take some of the Arvin-Edison water from San Luis Reservoir this summer.

In return, Arvin-Edison will get the same amount of San Joaquin River water from the Exchange Contractors, who are getting water this summer from Millerton Lake.

The San Joaquin water will run south through the Friant-Kern Canal, which passes Terra Bella before it reaches the Arvin-Edison district. Terra Bella will receive 5,000 acre-feet of water.

The deal involves another far-away organization -- the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which owned part of the San Luis Reservoir water used in the swap. Federal and state agencies as well as other water entities took part.

Collup of Arvin-Edison said: "It took 22 approvals to get it done. But the stars aligned, and it worked."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, mgrossi@fresnobee.com or @markgrossi on Twitter.

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