Buy a $700 reverse osmosis water purification system; run 326,000 gallons of water (one acre foot) through it; bottle it; and the value of that acre-foot is $2.4 million.

Consumers pay $8 a gallon for water sold in stores, Tony Oliveira, Kings County, Calif., farmer, told a recent ag issue conference in Tulare, Calif.

With a monetary spread like that, little wonder water continues to grow as the next crisis waiting to happen in California once the energy crisis is resolved.

While environmental issues continue to play major roles in who gets water, the value of water is bubbling to the surface as the biggest factor in the ongoing California water wars.

With California’s growing urban population and a water supply that is not increasing, the fight over water is evolving from a philosophical one (environment vs. farmer) to one where the person with the biggest checkbook balance wins.

Urban California will not pay $2.4 million per acre foot for water, but Richard Moss, general manager of the Friant Water Uses Authority said urban areas represent a “500-pound gorilla that will have its (water) needs met.”

Brokers proliferate

Water brokerage companies are proliferating, trying to feed that gorilla by buying ag water and selling it to “those willing to pay a lot for water.”

Right now, agriculture is the biggest water stakeholder in California, said Moss, but farmers do not have political power behind water.

The water war has been a continual march through state and federal courts and Moss said that has done more harm than good. It may be better to negotiate settlements.

“I do not mean by that ag should roll over,” said Moss.

Friant Water Users Authority has been a leader in trying to work through contentious water issues outside the courtroom, and they have had success.

Friant is a joint powers authority made up of 25 member agencies providing water to one million acres of prime farmland on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley stretching from Chowchilla to Arvin. It gets the water from the federal Millerton Lake. Moss has been Friant’s manager since it was formed in 1985.

Working to solve water issues outside the courthouse means being “open to working with people who may make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Environmentalists are here to stay…you have to deal with them.”

California is facing a chronic water shortage. “We are not short of water — we are short of developed water.”

Only two new reservoirs have been built in California in the past 25 years, both to improve urban water supplies. For California agriculture to gain new water supplies, they must offer a joint environmental and agricultural benefit. One reason is that farmers alone likely cannot pay for the water it would yield and need the support of environmental groups to pay for the dams.

And one of the first of what hopefully is a new era of dam building may come on the San Joaquin River above Fresno, Calif., where Friant Water Users Authority and environmental groups have hammered out an agreement that not only pledges to work toward river restoration, but to maintaining ag water supplies. From that may spawn an enlarged Friant dam or another water storage facility up river to increase river flow for the benefit of both fish and farmers.

Moss said he has grown weary of preaching ag water doom and gloom.

“Agriculture needs to play the hand it has been dealt and not overplay it. Agriculture is resilient and I think we will be OK,” he added.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com.