ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Severe droughts and a tiny fish have combined to tighten the tap on Southern California's water supply. Farmers in places like San Diego County are the first to feel the effects, as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: For 50 years, farmers here have been using water pumped in from the Colorado River and Northern California. They've turned this dry, hilly landscape northeast of San Diego into lush groves and fields. These days avocados are the biggest crop. In fact, San Diego County is the country's biggest avocado producer.
Mr. AL STEHLY (Farmer): This is my grove over here on the left.
SHOGREN: Al Stehly drives up the steep slope in Valley Center where he grows 60 acres of avocados.
Mr. STEHLY: He shows me how he pumps water from the bottom of the hill to irrigate his trees.
SHOGREN: How often do you have to water these plants?
Mr. STEHLY: Once a week.
SHOGREN: How many gallons go on each tree?
Mr. STEHLY: In the heat of the summer it'd be about 300 a week.
SHOGREN: Three hundred gallons, and each gallon has to make its way either from Northern California or the Colorado River. Stehly pays water bills of $14,000 a month.
Mr. STEHLY: We've got really good weather, but without the water I really can't grow anything.
SHOGREN: After a prolonged drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s, water agencies started investing in big water storage projects. And water prices doubled. To keep their businesses afloat, Stehly and most other farmers here made a kind of deal with the devil.
Mr. STEHLY: The deal was that in exchange for a discount on the water rate, we would be willing to take the first cutbacks in an emergency situation.
SHOGREN: A 30 percent cut, and starting late last month, the devil, the water agency, started demanding its due. Stehly plans to take chain saws to about 1,200 trees, a quarter of his grove. He'll try to keep the four-foot-tall stumps alive by giving them about a tenth the water they usually need.
Mr. STEHLY: We're going kind of put them in suspended animation.
SHOGREN: Stehly hopes he can bring the trees back to life when the cutbacks are lifted. He's stoic about the situation. But some other farmers in the area are spitting mad.
Mr. GARY BROOMELL (Farmer): The price of water is bad enough, but then when they tell us we got to cut by 30 percent, then you stop and say, okay, what do I do?
SHOGREN: Gary Broomell has been growing oranges and grapefruits here for almost 50 years. He says with competition from imported fruit and the pressure to sell out to developers, growers like him had to take the deal the water agency offered.
Mr. BROOMELL: We had no choice. I mean, we can't pay the full price. I mean, that's a given, especially in citrus. If we were paying the full price the last ten years, we wouldn't be here anymore.
SHOGREN: He blames environmentalists for stopping projects that would bring more water to the region and for pushing a lawsuit to protect a tiny endangered fish called the Delta Smelt that lives hundreds of miles away. He says he's in an untenable situation.
Mr. BROOMELL: I honestly think that it's more manmade than Mother Nature.
SHOGREN: The days of unlimited water ended after a federal judge in Fresno decided to protect the smelt, which lives in the Sacramento delta east of San Francisco Bay.
Mr. JEFFREY KIGHTLINGER (General Manager, Metropolitan Water District): These powerful pumps that are at the south of the delta basically pulled the smelt towards it and when they actually get into the pumps then they of course get killed.
SHOGREN: Jeffrey Kightlinger is the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 18 million mostly urban customers in Southern California. The court ordered the agency to stop pumping during the winter months, when the smelt are near the pumps. That reduces the water Southern California gets from northern California by about 25 to 30 percent. Kightlinger says that decision couldn't have come at a worst time.
Mr. KIGHTLINGER: The Colorado River is in its eighth year of drought and Northern California has also had a very dry year this past year. And then we had last year the driest year ever recorded in the Los Angeles Basin.
SHOGREN: He says it's not clear what role climate change plays in all of this, but late last month researches from the University of California at San Diego reported that emissions of greenhouse gases from cars and power plants are to blame for the shrinking snow pack in the mountains of the West. And they predict that the snow pack and the water supply will decline even more.
Given all of this, Kightlinger can't say how long the farmers will be shorted, but the farmers in San Diego County predict it will be a multi-year problem, and Al Stehly, the avocado grower, says if that happens it might be time to start thinking about a new crop that uses less water.
Mr. STEHLY: I really enjoy drinking wine, so maybe we'll try making some wine.
SHOGREN: Farmers here suspected that high water prices eventually would make their businesses uneconomical. But they didn't think it would happen so soon. And they didn't think a tiny fish and a massive global problem would be the reasons.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.