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Local Growers Hit with Water Restrictions

Southern California is in the midst of one of the driest years in history and a tiny fish called the delta smelt, facing extinction, could change San Diego County’s landscape forever. KPBS explores

What if the water department told you, you couldn’t have a shower today, ...or you couldn’t do your laundry, y…or maybe you could no longer water your lawn. What if they threatened to shut off your water because you used too much?

It may seem a little extreme, but it’s happening -- all around San Diego County. Not to homeowners or even industry, but to farmers. They’re being ordered to ration water., so much water their crops are dying. Tonight, we’llIn this Envision San Diego and KPBS special program, we’ll tell youtake an in-depth look at why farmers are the first to ration, and how it’s affecting their livelihood and eventually, your grocery bill. And we’ll introduce you to a man who’s one water bill away from losing the business his grandfather began nearly 80 years ago. (Story continues below)

It’s all happening for one simple reason, demand for water is greater than the county’s supply -- and water authorities predict, it’s only going to get worse. Here’s the story.

It’s hard to keep up with Gordon Clausen. Don’t let the white hair and beard fool you.

At 62, he seems more like 42. He walks quicklyy, talks quickly, he even drives quickly.

Clausen: This guy right here, he’s a great old guy. He’s 84 years old and still outside taking care of his grove., Ddo you see that guy walking around? Hhe takes care of all these trees like nothing. I saw a big old ladder the other day, and he had a big old box of tangerines picked and he takes care of his grove, he’s been doing it for years. He was the only guy on this road when I moved out.

Clausen is the kind of guy who can name any variety of fruit tree, he grows nearly 200.The kind of guy who carries clippers on his belt loop …

Clausen: I don’t like to see an overgrown yard.

A guy who lived in a mobile home with his wife, Hope for 28 years, so he could save enough money to build this, his dream house. Gordon Clausen is also a guy on the brink of ruin.

Clausen: But then this water issue this could stop us dead because we can’t get water we can’t grow anything..

Clausen has been growing fruit trees in San Diego County his entire life. Before that, his father, and before that his grandfather, all worked this Vista area land. Cultivating any kind of citrus tree you could imagine. You’ll find a Clausen fruit tree at just about any nursery in Southern California – some even find their way to the mid-west.

But water, or the lack of it, could end this three-generational business. The local water authority has threatened to shut off Clausen’s water because he’s using too much.

And he’s not the only San Diego area farmer in trouble over water. The region is in the midst of one of it’s driest years in history and a tiny fish, facing extinction, could change this landscape forever……

It was nearly 100 years ago San Diego developers promised the “eastern man” an Eden-like abundance here in the west, where farming offered a middle class lifestyle, where according to one early prospectus, “the farmer of the west has his automobile just as he has his plow.

The idea of an irrigated society had taken root and semi-arid land could be converted into fertile farmland. After all, how could a region that averages only 12 inches of rain a year, that borders so much desert, grow anything other than scrub or brush? The answer was in irrigation. Water could be piped in from wells, and eventually from the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta in the north.

San Diego County attracted farmers from the east and the north, so many thatagriculture is now a $1.5 billion industry. -- That translates to about $5 billion to the local economy.

The plan to irrigate worked, that is, until now……

Flowers and nursery plants are the county’s most lucrative crops, accounting for nearly a billion dollars in sales every year.

Number two, are fruit and nut crops……strawberries, avocados,oranges and lemons….And the number one ingredient for a bumper crop….water.

Chuck Badger: The most important input for lemons and oranges is really water, number 1. It obviously gives health to the tree but it also brings good fruit size, which brings more money. It keeps the trees resilient from pest infestation. So water’s extremely important. Of course fertilization and keeping the trees relatively pest free is important as well, and proper pruning and that kind of thing, but water without a doubt is number 1.

Chuck Badger’s family has been in the citrus business since 1922. He’s also the president of the local Farm Bureau, just like his grandfather was.

Chuck Badger: Well, when my grandfather came down here, he primarily came down to run horses but soon found out that the area was pretty good for growing citrus in after he tried some avocados and they didn’t do too well in our heavy clay soil, so he started growing oranges and enjoyed it and just went from there.

Badger’s grandfather had water problems back then too…..this Farm Bureau newsletter is from 1936…  

Farmers in San Diego county have always paid a price for this “irrigated society,”….water prices here are among the highest in the country.Even in California…

Look at these numbers…Farmers in San Diego County pay $650 per acre foot (that’s about 325,000 gallons) In Ventura County, they pay $380 per acre foot. In Imperial county they pay only $15 an acre foot . . .And now, 100 years of development later, there just may not be enough water to keep dry land fertile. Here’s why:

  • First, we got less rain last year in California, some southern communities received only 20 per cent of normal amounts.
  • Second, the Colorado River, a major source of our water, is entering its ninth year of drought.
  • Third, the Sierra Snowpack, which when it melts, is an essential part of the state’s water supply, is at 70 percent normal, and is predicted to fall to 55 percent of normal this year
  • Finally, California is currently under the largest court ordered water restriction in history. Last year, a judge ordered pumps at the Sacramento Delta to be cut back, by as much as 30 percent, to save a tiny fish on the brink of extinction. A fish called the Delta smelt. The order means more water has to be kept in the Delta, and less water pumped downstream to cities, towns and farms. All of this has led Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to proclaim a state-wide drought.

And, it’s prompted the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – to call in a wager it made with farmers 14 years ago.

In 1994, thousands of local farmers signed a deal that would give them a 20 percent discount on water rates, but in exchange, they’d be the first customers ordered to ration water in a time of drought. That time has come.

Residential and industrial users can continue to use or waste as much water as they want, but farmers have been ordered to cut their water use by 30 per cent. It’s a tall order given farmers are already conserving - using state of the art sprinkler systems to reduce run off and waste.

Chuck Badger is one of 5,000 agricultural customers in San Diego County under the rationing order.

Badger: These trees are showing water stress right now. This is one of the sites that we manage that is on the Interruptible Ag Water Program. So they’ve had to cut back in the house and we’re having to cut back in the grove. Where last Wednesday or Thursday we would have watered these trees for about six hours, we’ve probably cut back to just about two or three hours.

Katie Wild: Originally this property was a hundred acres of bare land and that’s what my husband and I originally bought in 1962. A lot of people saw what we were doing down here and wanted to come down here and develop the property as well.

Katie Wild and her late husband turned this Bonsall hillside into an Avocado grove.

Wild: It’s just really pretty to see the green trees on the hills and they’re a backdrop for landscaping in your own yard.

Wild is under the same rationing order as Chuck Badger. She has 10,000 avocado trees. To save water, she’s cut 3,000 trees back. Now, her hillside looks like this, a cemetery of sorts, of white washed avocado stumps.

Wild: You know, because I’ve grown since 1969, a lot of the things that are happening now, we saw happen. In 1991, we cut trees down to save water. ’91 and here we are all these later and the problems here, but North County has grown so between. It’s grown in agriculture and housing. I mean, look at I-15. It’s unbelievable. There’s only so much water. So wherever it goes. I want to comply. I don’t want penalty. I’d rather comply. If it means to reduce my acreage by 30 percent and comply, I’ll have to do that. Right now, I don’t think there’s a lot of certainty about what’s going to happen next year or long term, but I certainly need to keep my options available.

Clausen: For 60 years I was on that piece of property and I walked around that land and I see these trees that my grandfather planted, I’m eating the fruit off of the trees that I know my grandfather ate, that my dad ate, all of his kids ate and its real special to me, its something that a lot of people can’t identify with.

And, then there’s Gordon Clausen. He’s gone back to hand watering his thousands of trees, like his grandfather use to do, to try and save water. He’s also under a 30 percent mandatory rationing order. But Clausen has already gone over his water ration twice at one of his groves. If it happens a third time, the local water district has threatened to shut his water off.

Clausen: He said if you go over three times then they’ll put a washer in your meter with a little pinhole in it which will . . cause, I said we have a house on the property how can you shut that water off completely. You know people have to have the residential and he says we’ll put this washer in the meter with a little pinhole in it. It’ll give just enough water to the house but you won’t be able to water any plants.

Clausen: I told my worker we can’t take a chance of this happening so just fill the plants up half way. He said they’ll get stressed out, they won’t look good, if it gets hot they’re going to look crummy. I said at least we’ll keep them alive I don’t know what we’ll do. I said maybe we’ll get some rain, maybe it’ll be better next year but I don’t want to have them die either from not getting any water. So he started just filling them up half way and they don’t look as good either. But they’re still alive.

Just how much of the county’s total supply of water do farmers use? You’ll be surprised.

-- Just 15 percent. But so far, farmers are the only water users forced to conserve.

This scene from the movie classic, Chinatown, feels eerily familiar.

This meeting with state Senator Christine Kehoe may not have the dramatic flair seen in the movie, but the intent is the same. Farmers are in trouble and they want the government to intervene before they’re forced out of business.

Clausen: We’ve been in the program for a long time but we never—

Kehoe: It never got this bad before.

Clausen: We never thought—Yeah—I’ve been this my whole life and we’ve seen dry years and wet years and this never happened. They talked about it eight or nine years ago but they backed out of it because we got good winter rains, and this year we got pretty good winter rains too and we were basically up to normal, so we thought we’d be ok, but it’s the Delta smelt that’s causing the problem.

Gary Arant: I don’t know what this guy’s going to do without water. It says we’re going to….terminate your service august 1…for the entire year.

Gary Arant is the General Manager of the Valley Center Water District. He says the farmers knew they could be forced to ration water when they signed onto the Interruptible Agricultural Water Program 14 years ago.

Arant: As far as the thirty percent level goes, whether or not it’s an appropriate level or not, that is what the growers signed up for when they signed up for the IAWP. When we signed up our growers, we clearly pointed that out to them. They signed agreements. They understood that MWD could call for up to a thirty percent cut before they ask other people to cut. That was the deal, if you will. It’s very hard on them. We understand that. It’s very difficult for many of the growers to deal with this, but that was the deal, and Metropolitan now says, “Well, we have a water shortage and we need this water that you’re going to conserve, we need to give it to the firm customers, the residential and commercial customers who pay full price so that they don’t have to incur a mandatory reduction at this time.

Chuck Badger: Yeah, the Interruptible Ag Water Program was a great deal—Well, is a great deal, quite frankly for farmers because it gives us water at reduced price and since it’s our number one input, that’s very important. We always knew going in that when a drought came, and there’s never a question of if there would be another drought, so we knew that another drought would come and when it would come we knew we’d have to do this and this is acceptable to us. I think, for me, the biggest problem is that—I realize that a weather-driven drought would come—what’s tough for us to swallow now is, this is called a regulatory drought where government is regulating the amount of water we can receive because of the problem with the delta smelt up in the Bay area delta, and because of that problem with the delta smelt, a lot of our water didn’t come down to us but instead went out under the Golden Gate Bridge. So the regulatory drought is a tough pill for us to swallow. We understand there are acts of God and acts of nature and that’s what we signed up for but the governmental action is tougher to take.”

But when you sign that knowing that your grandfather was in the business, you know that it doesn’t rain a lot here, so did you think, I may have to ration, I may have to cut back.

Clausen: Not really because we never had to do it in the past and all these years in the past they would talk about it once in a while when there’s be a light year or couple years of not much rain, but nothing ever happened because there was adequate supply coming from up north coming down.

Nobody really took it seriously that this could really happen and its really because of the Delta smelt. Everybody says there is water up there, they’re just not sending it down here so its kind of a mandated shortage or drought.

Dabbs: Yes, the past month my past month water bill—and I’m not signed up for the discount—was $10,750.

Donnie Dabbs is a grove manager and one of the few in the agriculture business who never signed the water deal back in1994. He pays full price for water….and can use as much as he wants to water this 60 acre nursery in Bonsall.

Dabbs: Certain plants get watered everyday. Sometimes twice a day. Other plants might only need it every other day and then depending on the weather. The weather has a big role in when we irrigate. You know, during December, January, February, when it’s the wetter months, we may not irrigate at all. The hot months coming up here, July, August, September, October, you basically can’t get enough water on the plants. You’ve got to keep the meter going, you know, twelve hours a day, the water meter to supply enough water to these plants ‘til it basically gets dark and it starts all over again, you know, seven days a week.

Dabbs didn’t sign the deal because he knew it was only a matter of time before the dry weather caught up with the county. But he says he feels for farmers who are forced to ration. He knows they can’t grow anything on this land without imported water.

Dabbs: Another option would be this is prime Bonsall property, developers would love to gobble this up and build houses. That’s what potentially could happen if we don’t get enough water to farm whether it’s vegetables, ornamentals, cut flowers, avocados or inside greenhouse product, they’ll be forced to probably sell their land to a developer rather than give it back to the bank or going to try to keep the, you know, money coming in some way.

The Metropolitan Water District may not have such a sinister motive as to dry up farmland to make way for development, but farmers fear the result may be the same.

If this doesn’t change and you have to cut back 30 per cent this year, next year, the year after, what happens to all of this.

Clausen:  We’ll be phased out. We’ll be phased out and we’ll have to find something else to do. This is all I’ve done my whole life and it’s a good thing, providing food and healthy fruit that’s not brought in from a foreign country with pesticides that are out of our control.

Katie: I don’t think the public understands yet that there’s going to be a tremendous economy impact if agriculture is limited. The cost of food definitely is going to go up. All of the businesses that service agriculture are definitely going to be impacted. You know, labor is going impacted. But water in general, not just for agriculture, but water in general is just going to limit a lot of what we have in San Diego County. 

Arant: So I think we’re about to hit the wall here in water supply, and agriculture, one might even call them a canary in the mine shaft because agriculture is being hit first, not only in San Diego County, but also in the Central Valley south of the delta. So it’s a huge impact. Agriculture is a huge piece of California’s economy. I think it’s $50 billion or $60 billion. It’s—Farm gate value in this county alone is $1.5 billion and by the time you pack it, ship it, and sell it and so forth, it’s got about a $5 billion value in this county. So it’s a significant piece of our economy, and our community aesthetics of this area are what they are because of agriculture.

It is a grim scenario for farmers…..even if they were willing to pay more for water, it’s not an option. They can’t back out of the water deal.

But I’ll stay as long as I can, as long as I live . . .

Chuck Badger: You know what? It’s funny. I really feel—This might sound strange, but I really feel optimistic. Farming’s been going on for generations here in San Diego, and again, as I review the kinds of thing my grandfather had to deal with as a San Diego County farm president it’s the same thing we’re dealing with again, and they found ways to solve the problem and I’m confident we will find ways to solve the problem. That doesn’t mean it won’t be painful, but I’m confident we will solve the problem and that we’ll find enough water to continue growth of farming in our region, as well as provide the water that we all need to live on as people.

Clausen: I grew up on that piece over there. Everyday of my life I’ve been on that piece of property.

Gordon Claussen, the kind of guy who says he loves his work so much he’d do it for free…… knows he can’t, without water.

So what are you going to do now Gordon?

Clausen: I’m going to try to hang on, try to hang on the best I can to try and keep it going because this is all I know how to do its what I love to do and with god’s help I can keep on hopefully.

Farmers signed the water deal with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – a consortium of 26 cities and water districts from Los Angeles to San Diego. The MWD is a water broker of sorts. It is also the agency that could put an end to the water deal that now has so many farmers in trouble.

Before we go, we want to leave you with one more thought. This water crisis isn’t going away – in fact – all predictions say more severe shortages lie ahead. All of us may be under mandatory water rations early next year…so as for that shower, it’s very likely to get shorter – and the local fruit you buy, it’s sure to get more expensive and scarce.

For KPBS and Envision San Diego, I’m Joanne Faryon. Thanks for watching.

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