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Water Cuts May Mean Disaster for Farmers

SAN DIEGO COUNTY BUSINESS EDITOR

For Oceanside strawberry grower Mark Murai, the severe water rationing taking effect March 1 is more than an inconvenience. It could be a financial disaster.

Like most other San Diego County water consumers, Murai will be forced to cut his farm’s water consumption by at least 30% starting March 1. That could be increased to 50% if the Metropolitan Water District approves even more drastic cutbacks at a special meeting scheduled March 4. The district supplies the county with 95% of its water.

To conform with the rationing, Murai may have to cut off water to as many as 30 of his farm’s 200 acres planted with strawberries. Harvest of the fruit has already begun and continues through June at Murai’s North River Ranch farm in the San Luis Rey River Valley.

Not being able to harvest those many acres--up to 15% of his projected crop of strawberries--could spell financial disaster for Murai who, like many other growers, borrows hundreds of thousands of dollars at the beginning of each growing season to finance his operation.

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Since Murai counts on a projected yield of crops at the end of the growing cycle to make enough money to pay off the bank and make a profit, shutting down 15% of his acreage means he may not be able to harvest enough fruit to pay his debts.

Strawberry farmers typically borrow $20,000 to $25,000 an acre to finance planting, soil preparation, maintenance, irrigation, labor and other operations.

“In farming, it’s a big gamble just planting knowing you have to pay the bank back,” said Murai, a 25-year-old Cal Poly Pomona graduate whose family has farmed in Southern California for three generations. “But now there is a new factor, a big factor in that we don’t know how long this drought is going to go on, and so our future is really up in the air right now.”

If the 50% cut in water consumption is imposed, the issue for Murai becomes “a question of even surviving, whether we would be able to be in business next year.”

“Farming is kind of tough in that you can’t sit out one year and go back in,” Murai said. “We are funded yearly, and if we don’t pay back our financing this year we surely aren’t going to get financing the next year.”

The predicament being faced by Murai is hardly unique, said Wayne Schrader, a San Diego-based farm adviser with the University of California Agricultural Extension. Because of the cutbacks, virtually every farmer in the county will be faced with critical decisions that will affect crops, the county’s 10,000 agricultural workers and San Diego’s $772-million farm industry, Schrader said.

Farmers throughout Southern California have seen their livelihoods jeopardized by the five-year drought. Lack of rainfall and a light Sierra snowpack this year prompted the Metropolitan Water District to impose the most severe cutbacks yet in the water it delivers via aqueduct to its Southern California customers.

But the water rationing hits particularly hard, Schrader said, with farmers such as Murai who have already achieved high efficiency in water use, thanks technology. Those farmers have little waste in water consumption to trim, so abandoning acreage is the only alternative in meeting the new restrictions, he said.

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Murai, for example, uses a number of methods to minimize his water use, a conservational approach necessitated by the high cost of water in San Diego County. He now pays about $350 per acre-foot for water, or about $100 more per acre foot than his family pays for water at its 600-acre Irvine farm.

To estimate how much water his crops are absorbing, Murai uses an instrument called a tensiometer, which measures the water suction of plants’ root systems. He also subscribes to a computerized service called the California Irrigation Management Information System that takes into account daily temperature, wind speed and humidity to advise farmers on proper irrigation levels.

Farmers have been unable to persuade the water districts to give them a break in water rates--to replace an across-the-board cut in water supply in favor of a system that allows a certain amount of water use per crop, a system that would reward efficiency.

Betsy Wilson, an administrative aide at the Oceanside’ water utility office said such a system would require verification of crop production with manpower that the district does not have.

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The drought is clearly jeopardizing San Diego’s viability as a strawberry- growing area. Mainly because of increased competition from Mexican farmers and to the shrinkage of available farm land, San Diego County’s yearly crop has been declining over recent years, although the dollar yield has risen thanks to high prices.

In 1989, the last year for which figures are available, the strawberry crop totaled 872 acres and a dollar value of $24.5 million, contrasted with 1988’s 1,103 acres and dollar yield of $20.6 million.

The water rationing will be enforced by imposing penalties of 300% or more for water consumed over and above the ration limits, said Gordon Hess, senior civil engineer with the San Diego County Water Authority, the agency that buys water from the Metropolitan Water District and resells it to the county’s 23 local water districts in the county.

But the Metropolitan Water District may put even more teeth in the rationing. The board is considering raising the penalties for overuse to as high as 900% of normal water prices, Hess said.

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Hess held out little hope for new sources of water that could help alleviate the farmers’ plight. The Metropolitan Water District’s ration plan assumes that the Colorado River Aqueduct, the other major source of water for Southern Californians, is operated at its maximum capacity “so there cannot be any additional water forced through that system.”


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