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California Water Providers Look to Conservation, New Technologies - 2003-03-28

The Southwestern United States is facing a water shortage, caused by human development and several years of lighter-than-average rainfall. In Southern California, the shortage was worsened after federal officials reduced supplies from the Colorado River three months ago. Local water providers say conservation and new technologies will help the region meet its future needs.

In its early years, Los Angeles got its water from the Los Angeles River, which today is a network of drainage channels that are dry for most of the year. But the water that once flowed there is available from ground wells, which provide 15 percent of the city's water.

Half of the city's water comes from the Sierra Nevada mountains by way of an aqueduct, and some is channeled from northern California. The rest comes from the Colorado River, east of the city.

The end of December, part of that supply was reduced, says Jerry Gewe of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The problem started years ago, when California began to use more than its allotment and other western states complained to the federal government. "And they, working together with the [U.S.] Bureau of Reclamation, set a deadline of December 31 for California to come up with a plan to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River or the bureau could cut off a portion of the supplies to California," he says.

There was no agreement and some of the supplies were cut.

But the water manager says city has enough backup supplies and the reduction poses no danger.

Local officials are encouraging conservation to ensure future water needs are met. Mr. Gewe's public utility offers residents free water-conserving toilets, and its pricing structure discourages waste. When the use of water goes up, so does the price per unit. He says the city is also turning to other sources. "Essentially, here in Southern California, we have an unlimited source of water off the coast. It comes down to a question of cost," he says.

The cost of desalinating, or removing the salt, from seawater has come down by half in the past 10 years, the result of new filtering technology. Still, utility officials say that processed ocean water costs three times as much as other supplies. But as the price of those supplies goes up, desalinated water will be more competitive.

The city plans a desalination plant next to one of its power stations by the end of the decade. Water planner David Pettijohn says Los Angeles is diversifying its sources, and desalination is one piece of its plan. "It's going to start out, of course, as a small piece. We're looking forward through the next century and we see that de-sal can play a very big role in the future needs for water, not only here in southern California but in other areas, Texas, Florida as well," he says.

Much of central and southern California is desert, and the rich farming areas in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys rely on irrigation to keep their soil productive. Agriculture is a $30 billion a year industry in the state, and it consumes more than 80 percent of California's usable water.

But California's farmers face rising production costs and intense competition from international growers, says business consultant Jock O'Connell. "So even with adding on transportation costs and paying whatever applicable tariffs there are, it's quite possible for foreign growers to land their produce here in the United States and to still beat the price that California growers would have to charge just to break even," he says.

For example, garlic grown in China is cheaper in California than locally grown garlic, despite a tariff of nearly 400 percent. Federal officials imposed the tariff when U.S. farmers complained that China was dumping the crop on the market at less than the cost to produce it.

But crop after crop, from cabbage to watermelon, is imported from China more cheaply than it is grown in California. Competition is also increasing from agricultural products from Latin America, Australia and even Turkey.

Globalization may reduce the importance of farming in California, says analyst O'Connell, though it still remains the state's number one industry. He notes that even a modest reduction in agriculture will make more water available for other uses.

But local officials aren't counting on that. They say they are making plans to meet a growing demand for water by diversifying, promoting recycling and encouraging conservation.