They forget no farm; no food……

The nation’s largest distributor of treated drinking water became the largest landowner in a remote California farming region for good reason: The alfalfa-growing area is first in line to get Colorado River water.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s play in Palo Verde Valley, along the Arizona line, tapped a deep distrust between farm and city that pervades the West over a river that’s a lifeline for seven states and northern Mexico.

Farmers recall how Los Angeles’ modern founders built an aqueduct a century ago to bring water hundreds of miles from rural Owens Valley, a story that was fictionally portrayed in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, “Chinatown.”

“Are we going to dry up our rural, agricultural communities just to keep Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego growing? I think it would be a sad state of affairs,” said Bart Fisher, a melon and broccoli farmer who is board president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District.

Metropolitan tried to calm nerves by sending its chairman in September to a public forum in Blythe, 225 miles east of its Los Angeles headquarters. It pledged to honor a 2004 agreement that caps the amount of land it pays farmers to idle at 28 percent of the valley.

That agreement, which expires in 2040, is hailed as a model for farms and cities to cooperate. Metropolitan pays farmers about as much as they would profit to harvest — $771 an acre this year — to bring foregone Colorado River water on its 242-mile aqueduct to 19 million people in the coastal megalopolis it serves.

Palo Verde enjoys California’s highest rights to the river, making their immune to drought.

The dynamic changed when Metropolitan paid $256 million in July to nearly double its Palo Verde holdings to 29,000 acres, or about 30 percent of the valley. The agency denied its purchase from Verbena LLC, a company that bought the land several years earlier from the Mormon church, was part of an orchestrated plan.

“It’s made the farmers out there nervous that we are the largest owner but there was a strategic opportunity that came up,” Metropolitan’s general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said.