CVP farmers see improvement, frustration
By Christine Souza
Fresno County farmer Sal Parra Jr. says he has had to idle some land due to the delayed water allocation from the Central Valley Project, including the field above that would have been planted in processing tomatoes. The field had already been prepared for planting and drip irrigation.
Fresno County farmer Sal Parra Jr. walks in a field of onions in the western San Joaquin Valley.
Fresno County farmer Ramon Chavez helps load processing tomato transplants into machinery prior to planting. While awaiting an initial water allocation from the Central Valley Project, Chavez decided to leave 600 acres unplanted, but is now considering planting half of those acres.
A significantly improved water allocation for farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley means more acres will be planted and more crops and jobs produced. But farmers say there's also a sense of what might have been if they had received a full water allocation from the Central Valley Project, or even if the existing 65 percent allocation had come sooner.
Farmers, employees and equipment are out in force throughout the Westside, harvesting onions, lettuce and parsley, and planting summer crops such as processing tomatoes and sweet corn. Farms in the region obtain surface water through contracts with the CVP; they received no contract water in 2014-15 and a 5 percent allocation last year.
The 65 percent allocation marks the largest received by south-of-delta CVP contractors since 2011, but farmers and water agencies said they had hoped for a larger supply, given the far-above-average Sierra snowpack. And the fact that this year's initial announcement didn't come until March 22—a month later than usual—compounded the frustration.
Ramon Chavez of RRS Farms in Cantua Creek, who farms within the Westlands Water District, said he had to reduce his total acres this season because he didn't have information about the water supply when he started making plans.
"If we would have known, we would have added more acres," Chavez said. "I had canneries calling, asking me if I could put in more tomatoes. Without an allocation, we were skeptical and said no. We had to cut 600 acres out of the equation. Now, we're thinking of maybe adding more acres."
As Chavez helped employees load machines with tomato transplants, he noted that many growers begin making plans for the spring in September and October, meeting with bankers, ordering seed and finalizing contacts. Without knowing the region's water allocation, he said, "our banker feels it is safer" to leave some land idle.
"The bank will ask us, 'How can you do this with this much water?' So there are a lot of questions we need to answer," Chavez said. "We had to commit to buy the seed back in September. The seed is transplanted in the greenhouses and then the greenhouses deliver it to us. If we now want to do an additional 300 acres, it depends on if there's enough plants in the greenhouses."
Sal Parra Jr., assistant manager at Burford Ranch in Cantua Creek, pointed to a fallowed field that would have been planted in processing tomatoes if the water allocation had been reported earlier.
"Some individuals are able to add some acreage, but the unfortunate part is, with the allocation coming so late, there are a lot of things we can't do anymore," Parra said. "You can't go get a tomato contract in March and you can't pre-irrigate ground for cotton, because you have to plant it now."
Given the surface water that the farm could count on in January, he said, "we were apprehensive to take on commitments and contracts knowing that we might not be able to perform."
"In early winter, we had to make a decision to not plant because of a lack of reliability in terms of our surface water," said Parra, who fallowed 4,000 acres of processing tomatoes. "The infrastructure is already here, the drip is in the ground and the investment has been made to produce the crop, but we decided to hold off."
Burford Farms grows more than a dozen different commodities, from permanent crops such as almonds and winegrapes to row crops including garbanzo beans and garlic. Parra called the 65 percent allocation "a disappointment," adding that "it all goes back to the need for additional storage. Why are we not capturing all of this water, especially after the drought we have just lived through?"
"We can idle ground, but this is our livelihood," he said. "You are farming to succeed. There has to be a financial incentive. Water is a staple, a must. I can look for alternative fertilizers, alternative labor or go to mechanization, but I can't replace water."
News of the 65 percent allocation, Parra said, convinced him to plant 1,200 of the fallowed acres in garbanzo beans. Also, he said he can blend the surface water with groundwater "to dilute some of the salts and improve soil quality."
Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP, said the initial 65 percent allocation for south-of-delta contractors could increase as the year progresses. If that happens, Parra said, there would be little change in the number of idled acres, although farmers could possibly increase plantings of winter crops.
Gayle Holman, a public affairs representative for the Westlands Water District, noted that "one-third of the district has been fallowed over the last couple of years," with 207,000 acres fallowed in 2014 and 213,000 acres fallowed in 2015, during the years when the district's CVP allocation dropped to zero.
"There is not one grower that is unscathed from that; they are all feeling it," Holman said. "This year, we hope to see that productivity rise and the fallowed acreage reduced. Again, the critical part is the allocation is coming so late."
The California Department of Water Resources reported last week that electronic readings from 95 sites in the Sierra Nevada showed an average statewide snow water equivalent that is 164 percent of the historical average for the start of April.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.