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Goleta Water District Wants Avocado Farmers to ‘Stump’ Trees for Temporary Savings

The Board of Directors gives conditional approval of the Cash for Crops program, which offers rebates for agricultural customers willing to cut back

In an effort to reduce water use, the Goleta Water District ‘s Cash for Crops program will give rebates to agricultural customers willing to take permanent crops such as avocado trees out of production temporarily.
In an effort to reduce water use, the Goleta Water District ‘s Cash for Crops program will give rebates to agricultural customers willing to take permanent crops such as avocado trees out of production temporarily. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The Goleta Water District has been targeting “low hanging fruit” such as ornamental landscaping and leaks with its water use restrictions, but now it’s targeting literal fruit.

Agricultural customers use 20 percent of the district’s water, and demand has gone up since the drought was declared. They represent 1 percent of district customer accounts and used 30 percent of the district’s water sold in 2014.

The Cash for Crops program will give rebates to people willing to take permanent crops such as avocado and lemon trees out of production temporarily. It’s a short-term bid to cut down on outdoor water use and focuses on agricultural customers, unlike most conservation efforts so far.

The Board of Directors authorized the Cash for Crops program at Tuesday’s meeting, though some water board members will work out the details of contracts with farmers and benchmarks for making rebate payments.

Goleta Water District officials say their customers have low per-capita usage so it’s difficult to cut down on water demand. As of now, customers have reduced use 13 percent, which is a far cry from the 25 percent Gov. Jerry Brown is now asking for. State restrictions don't apply to agricultural use, which is estimated at 80 percent of California’s water.

In Goleta, agricultural customers have increased water use by 15 percent while residential and commercial customers cut back, assistant general manager David Matson said. Agricultural water costs about one-fifth as much as urban water customers pay per hundred cubic feet. 

Those customers told district staff that the record temperatures, lack of rain and reduced well levels all contributed to the additional water use. At Tuesday’s meeting, the district noted that 83 percent of local farmland already use efficient irrigation, such as drip systems and micro-spray.

Cash for Crops is designed to give $1,200 per acre of permanent crops taken out of production by local farmers who are water district customers, targeting avocado orchards. 

There are 4,012 farmed acres within the water district boundaries and 88 percent has permanent crops — mostly avocado trees.

District staff estimated that farms use an average of 1.5 acre-feet of water per acre, per year, and that much water would be saved by taking crops out of production. Agricultural water use in Goleta typically increases for the period of March through October, so general manager John McInnes said the district wants to start the program now.

“We need these savings as quickly as possible,” he said.

Some directors had concerns, saying there was no guarantee farmers wouldn’t cut down acres of orchard and then redirect the water to another area.

Director Rick Merrifield suggested having a “reasonable minimum” of water savings for the rebate program.

There was also some objection to giving half of the rebate money up front and the rest after confirming the stumping, and Director Bill Rosen called it “way too much, too soon.”

That’s why the board unanimously authorized the district staff to develop the program with the condition that all the related documents — including conditions to get paid and monitoring of water savings — get approved by the board’s administrative committee later this month.

The rebate of $1,200 per acre — meant to compensate for half the cost of “stumping” an acre of avocado trees — is seen as cheaper than purchasing water, according to the district. Adding mulch can also significantly cut back on water use, but not nearly as much as stumping, district staff said.

Cash for Crops is proposed to last for one-and-a-half years, about the longest amount of time stumped avocado trees can stay dormant before being put back into production, district staff said.

A fund of $520,000 for rebates is proposed, with no maximum per application and an expected water savings of 650 acre-feet. District staff said some farmers were interested in the program and some already planned to cut trees in anticipation of water surcharges.

There are rebates and incentives in place but conserving water is voluntary in Goleta so far, although there are mandatory restrictions on some outdoor water use.

The Goleta Water District plans to declare a Stage 3 drought in May, with goals of reducing water use by 35 percent and cutting back on agricultural use specifically.

The district has a special meeting scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss raising water rates, including a possible drought surcharge. It will be held at the Goleta Union School District board room at 401 N. Fairview Ave.

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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