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In arid West, selling water beats farming for income

Travel notes: In the lush resorts that sprawl over California's Coachella Valley, the grass is so green it dazzles the eye and the bougainvillea vines draping stucco walls are so intensely red you wonder if your eyes are playing tricks.

Throughout the day, planes swoop down over the stark, gray, boulder-strewn mountains ringing the valley and disgorge several hundred more “snowbirds” at the Palm Springs airport.

The flow of visitors will only increase as Old Man Winter gets a grip on the rest of the country.

Here in the desert, January's average temperature is 75 degrees or so and one can golf/shop/whatever in short sleeves while eyeing snow-capped mountain vistas in the background. It's said there are over 100 golf courses in the valley and more on the drawing board. Jaguars, Mercedeses, Lexuses, Porsches, and the occasional Rolls vie for parking at the espresso/cappuccino shops.

In a valley that's pure desert, the good life thrives because of water. Without it, there'd be no designer golf courses, no flowing fountains, no lush landscapes — just sand, scrub brush, rattlesnakes. Demand for that water keeps spiraling upward as new resorts, homes, and businesses proliferate.

A hundred miles or so to the east, in the small farming community of Blythe, the landscape is dramatically different. You'd be hard-pressed to find a resort or a Starbucks. You can find 20,000 or so acres of cotton (with a 5.5-bale average in 2000), some alfalfa and winter veggies. There used to be three or four times that much cotton and several gins; now there's one gin. With prices/costs as they are, some growers say they won't plant an acre of cotton in 2002.

The area gets less than three inches of rainfall per year. That's right, three. But it doesn't matter: they have what Palm Springs and the not-so-far-away megalopolises of Los Angeles and San Diego don't have — lots of water. Priority one water from the Colorado River, under an agreement going back more than 100 years. Cheap water: $3.90 per acre foot versus $120 in the San Joaquin Valley.

Therein lies an irony. Ever-expanding Los Angeles needs more water and is dangling a lot of money to entice farmers in the Palo Verde Irrigation District to sell a portion of their water rights over the next 35 years.

The terms are complex, but the simple version is that by agreeing to fallow their land, participants would get an up-front $3,170 per acre and a yearly payment of $550 for each acre not watered.

A lot of farmers are in favor, seeing it as an economic boost and a stabilizing influence on agriculture. Others question it, saying 35 years is a long time and they don't want to lock succeeding generations into a deal that might not be in their best interests.

As water levels decline in many areas of the country and urban demands increase, this sort of scenario may become more prevalent. Even here in the Mid-South, a number of municipalities are contending with water shortages.

A California farmer observed wryly: “Water wars are going to make electricity wars seem like small potatoes.”

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