EDITORIAL: Today's water battles merely are warm-ups for the future

If someone polled San Joaquin Valley residents on the importance of preserving prime agricultural land, we are confident that respondents overwhelmingly would favor protecting the soil that drives our region's economy.

Supporting a concept is easy -- especially when you don't have skin in the game.

The rub comes when farmers are offered big money for their acreage, or their water, by developers intent on turning dirt into subdivisions and new towns.

Which brings us to the proposed Gunner Ranch West project in Madera County. Plans call for a 3,000-home community with offices, shops, schools and an expanded Children's Hospital Central California.

On Tuesday, the Madera County Board of Supervisors wisely delayed a vote on the project because it wanted to pin down details of how developer Richard Gunner would provide water for the project.

Project critics contend that there isn't sufficient groundwater in the area to allow the project to solely rely on wells.

In addition to being a developer, Gunner is a grower. He wants to redirect irrigation water from his orchards to the project. If that water isn't sufficient to meet the needs of the project's 8,500 residents and its accompanying enterprises, he proposes buying more from an irrigation district.

As the Valley grows, battles over (and competition for) water -- already fierce, already clogging the courts and already expensive -- will become more intense.

There undoubtedly will be more instances of agricultural water districts selling water to developers, even as a good number of farmers, their lands parched by drought and environmental restrictions to protect fish, bemoan their reduced irrigation deliveries.

A challenge for the Valley's farm bureaus, all of which champion the preservation of prime ag land, is convincing the public that the need is legitimate when farmers and irrigation districts have no qualms about selling off two of their biggest assets -- soil and water -- to the highest bidders.

Unless something changes, we'll see much of the Valley's great farm land -- praised as the most productive in the world -- paved over for subdivisions and its intricate web of irrigation canals rendered mere funnels for suburban household taps.