David Mcnew  /  Getty Images
This water pumping equipment at an irrigation holding pond in Southern California's Coachella Valley is a way of life for farmers dependent on irrigation.
updated 10/11/2007 8:15:52 AM ET 2007-10-11T12:15:52

Officials of Southern California's major water wholesaler say deliveries to the region's agricultural customers will be cut by nearly a third next year and residents are likely to face rate hikes in 2009 because of a statewide shortage fueled by drought and a court ruling to protect endangered fish.

Utilities that serve residential customers and are supplied by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California can expect price hikes between 5 percent and 10 percent in 2009, district spokesman Bob Muir said this week.

The rate increases would be needed to pay for additional water supplies from other sellers in the state and further investment in the water grid, he said.

The district provides water to nearly 18 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. The district sells water at wholesale rates to local utilities, providing Southern California with half its supply. The rest comes from underground sources and other local supplies.

The district is also reducing by 30 percent deliveries to 12 agencies that buy water at discount pricing for agricultural customers, Muir said. Those cuts will take effect Jan. 1, he said.

Utilities that sell to agricultural users receive water at a discount under a program that makes them first to suffer cutbacks during shortages.

Farmer Al Stehly said the avocados he grows in northern San Diego County are entirely dependent on water provided by the district and that he will take a financial hit from the cuts.

"It's going to be tough and there will be some belt tightening, but we're going to get through this if it's only one year," he said. "But if it's permanent or it's more than 30 percent, it's going to be real tough to make a living."

The actions follow an August court decision limiting outflow from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect an endangered fish species. The federal ruling came in response to a 2005 lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The suit complained that the massive pumps used by the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project were driving the threatened delta smelt to extinction.

Because of the lead-up to the ruling, farmers expected the cuts, said San Diego County Farm Bureau director Eric Larson. "We've seen this coming for quite some time," he said.

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