Water Woes Continue

Water shortages were a top concern for California growers in 1990 following a four-year drought that put their supply in jeopardy. Measures taken back then created the water management system in place today.

This year, growers who participate in the Interim Agricultural Water Program (IAWP) are forced to reduce their water use to 70 percent of the amount used the previous year–a mandatory 30 percent reduction. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California created IAWP in 1994 as a way to offer growers more affordable water rates. The mutually agreed tradeoff is mandatory reductions when reserves are low. Failure to meet the 30 percent reduction will result in water being turned off at the meter by the water districts.

Metropolitan is the wholesaler that manages imported water which sustains many regions in California. “The cut is the product of three hits taken by the Southern California imported water supply–eight years of drought on the Colorado River, a record dry year in California and a recent court ruling that pumps that send water south from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta must be restrained from January to June in order to protect the endangered delta smelt,” explains Eric Larson, executive director of San Diego County Farm Bureau.

Citizens have been asked to conserve voluntarily to protect the region’s supply. “If voluntary conservation fails, the cuts to farmers will go deeper,” Larson says. To come into compliance, growers can assess practices to ensure no waste, invest in new technology, invest in water recycling and change crops. For growers who are already efficient in their watering practices, the only solution will be to reduce production.

Water shortages are becoming a way of life for growers outside of California. For many years, Florida growers have been working with their water districts, the government and the University of Florida on best management practices for water and nutrient management, due to water shortages and runoff concerns.

In the Southeast, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina were hit especially hard by drought in 2007. Atlanta-based Pike Family Nurseries, one of the largest garden retailers in the country, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as a result. The Secretary of Agriculture issued disaster declarations in more than 16 states last year, even as far north as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

“Water is going to be a make or break issue for many growers, especially in terms of the marketplace,” says Paul Fisher, associate professor and Extension specialist at University of Florida. “There are some regulatory issues growers can and are starting to deal with in terms of minimizing runoff. Much more can be done in terms of on-farm water conservation technology, but that will be largely driven by regulations, and therefore the economics of trying to stay in business. The bigger challenge that worries me is how water restrictions will affect the market for gardening products, and that is largely out of our hands.”

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