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Southland to buy farmers’ water

Times Staff Writer

Southern California water officials said on Tuesday that they plan to purchase large amounts of water from Central Valley farmers, a move designed to ease an anticipated water shortage but likely to increase customers’ bills.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California hopes that by purchasing the water, it can maintain regular supplies despite a federal judge’s ruling that is expected to reduce the amount of water Southern California receives from the Sacramento Delta by up to 30%.

But because the farmers’ market-rate water is more expensive than the water the MWD normally imports, officials said, residents can expect their bills to rise in 2009.

The MWD, which imports water to more than 18 million customers around the Southland, has been dealing with expected reductions in water supply from three key sources: the delta; the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where snow pack levels are down; and the Colorado River, which flows through a region in the midst of a major drought.

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At the same time, Southern California is experiencing a record dry period, with less than 4 inches of rain falling in downtown Los Angeles during the 2006-07 rain year.

Officials said they will probably have to buy more expensive water in the coming year, seeing the purchases as “insurance” against another year of little rain.

“This helps cushion the potential shortfall if we get another dramatically dry year, coupled with continued eight-year drought along the Colorado River,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, MWD general manager.

But even with the purchases, officials said, another parched winter would probably mean that the giant water importer would have to reduce supplies to local communities.

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Such a move would probably mean that cities would raise water rates even further and begin rationing programs, which have not occurred in Southern California since the early 1990s.

The MWD’s own rates to customers, which include 26 communities and water agencies across Southern California, are locked in until early 2009. But if there were a cutback in the water delivered to local communities -- particularly those that get most of their water from the district -- water bills could jump in some cities sooner rather than later.

“Local agencies would determine how to ration water throughout the area,” Kightlinger said, adding that they could raise rates to make up for having less water.

Officials have in the past estimated the average rate hike at about 10%. That’s on top of rate hikes many water agencies had previously planned in order to make up for infrastructure costs and other expenses.

Metropolitan is just one of several agencies, or “water contractors,” collaborating as a “co-op” to secure water during a time when several challenges to water supplies have cropped up.

A federal judge in Fresno this summer issued a ruling that is expected to slash water deliveries from the delta by about 30%, part of an effort to save the endangered delta smelt. Long Beach has already begun a water control program, regulating when residents can water their lawns and how restaurants serve water to customers.

Still, officials say the situation is better than it was in the early 1990s, when the region was locked in another major drought.

Most of the major reservoirs that serve the Southland are full, and MWD’s overall water reserve is far healthier than it was during the early 1990s.

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“There’s a tremendous amount of water storage in Southern California,” Kightlinger said. “In theory, we have enough to last all year long” without having to cut deliveries.

But, Kightlinger added, “we have to weigh how we’re going to draw down on our reserves, which could leave us exposed in 2009, if there’s a big earthquake or something like that.”

On Tuesday, the MWD board agreed to start negotiating to purchase 235,000 acre-feet from Yuba County and other parts of the Central Valley. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to cover an acre one foot deep, and can supply two households for about a year.

“By acting now, we’re demonstrating the kind of proactive and resourceful approaches Southern California must undertake to deal with the supply uncertainties we face in coming years,” said Timothy F. Brick, MWD board chairman.

The last time the MWD made similar purchases was in 2003, when it transferred more than 150,000 acre-feet. At the time, the basic cost of the water was $125 per acre-foot, which is $60 an acre-foot more than the MWD pays for delta water through the State Water Project. But Kightlinger said it’s probably going to be more expensive this time because of the overall water and climate picture.

“We’ve told the board it’s probably going to be north of $125 an acre-foot,” he said. “Hopefully, not much farther north.”

hector.becerra@latimes.com


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