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WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE

excerpt from the Soil Report Newsletter of Soilmoisture Equipment Corp.

Chances are anyone even thinking of becoming a fruit grower in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, will eventually talk to Gary Gunn. He's with the Fruit Growers Supply, the Sunkist coop in Santa Paula, and local irrigation supervisor.

Gary and his irrigation design specialist, Marty Coert, help with the design of orchards, tree planting, well drilling if needed, filtration, pumping, and sprinkler systems. They'll even install the system if that's wanted.Such assistance helps make Ventura County one of the most agriculturally significant in California."The situation is different here than in other parts of California, such as the Central Valley," Gary Gunn explains. "We have a handful of large spreads of 200 acres or more, but most ranches here are small, lots of 10-acre places. I'd guess the average is 20 acres. The principal crops are Valencia oranges and lemons." This greatly alters the demand for water and how it is used. Unlike the Central Valley (see The Scoop) farmers and growers depend on well water, either drilling their own well or buying water from a community well.

"In the western part of the county, ranchers may have to drill a thousand feet or more to find water, as Dave Koontz did. But here around Fillmore in eastern Ventura County, growers only have to drill a hundred to two hundred feet. That reduces the initial investment," Gary says. "There are lots of small water companies around here, with farmers selling water to his neighbors. The cost is usually around $100 an acre foot."
Gary Gunn considers $100 an acre foot of water a modest price, while his counterpart in the Central Valley, Tom Newkirk, thinks it a high price. The difference in attitude may lie in the size of the ranches. A hundred dollars per acre may seem modest for 10 acres, but exorbitant for hundreds of acres."Just because water remains relatively cheap and easy to get in Ventura County does not mean the growers here don't try to conserve it, "Gary says. "The cost of pumping it, the electrical bill, can run $120 per acre foot. That is plenty of reason to conserve water."

But cost is not the only reason to use tensiometers to decide when and how long to irrigate. "The growers who use water wisely have the best crops and command the best prices for their fruit,"Gary says. "It is a matter of pride, as well as economics."Advise on water management is not the only service offered by the Fruit Growers Supply. The coop provides leaf and soil analysis through the Fruit Growers Lab.

Gary Gunn remains sanguine about availability of water to keep California agriculture flourishing. "There are places where the cost of water has gone through the roof, " he says. "An example is the Palma Valley, east of Escondido, in the San Diego area. Growers are paying $400 and $500 per acre foot. If that continues, it almost dictates that the farmers there will have to sell their land for housing and commercial use, then begin farming somewhere else. That sort of thing has happened throughout our history."I don't anticipate any water shortage in this area, as long as we continue to conserve. I'm 44 years old and I've lived in this area all my life, except for college. I've experienced only one drought, that of the early 1990s. There is now ample rainfall and plenty of water. I don't think we need to fear the future and make drastic changes and huge investments."