Farmers respond in wake of ‘zero’ water allocation


Issue Date: February 26, 2014
By Kate Campbell

The announcement, though anticipated, still delivered a blow to farmers in many parts of the Central Valley: In its first forecast, the federal Central Valley Project said it expects to deliver no irrigation water to its agricultural service contractors in the western San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, nor to its Friant Division contractors in the eastern San Joaquin Valley.

Farmers in the affected areas say they will take a number of actions in response to the water cutoff, while California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger said the action highlights the lack of investment California has made in new water supplies.

"The state has failed to insulate itself from the effects of drought," Wenger said. "As the saying goes, you reap what you sow, and our state and federal governments have failed miserably at providing the resources and infrastructure needed to adapt to changing climatic conditions."

Wenger said this lack of foresight affects the people and the economy of California, and called the cutbacks "just the tip of the iceberg of devastation" that faces farmers, ranchers and consumers.

"The extensive investments farmers and urban residents have made to increase water efficiency have not shielded us from this disaster—despite 20-plus years of assurances from environmental activists that all we needed to do was conserve," Wenger said.

More than a half-million acres of productive farmland will likely be left unplanted as a result of water shortages in areas served by the CVP, the State Water Project—which issued its own "zero" allocation last month—and other water-stressed regions of the state, according to Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition.

"The unplanted acres represent the loss of melons, peppers, broccoli, iceberg lettuce and onions, to name a few of the crops lost this year," Wade said, adding that this means "more than 500,000 acres of fruit and vegetable crops that consumers expect and depend on won't be grown because of the lack of water."

Bill Diedrich, who farms more than a dozen crops in Fresno and Madera counties, said the official CVP announcement of a zero allocation is a real blow to Westside farmers along Interstate 5.

"There are many people farming along the I-5 corridor who don't have diversified water resources," he said. "They'll be out of business this year."

To create more certainty for farmers, Diedrich said there needs to be more latitude to operate the delta pumps when water is available and there's no threat to protected fish.

"We're in jeopardy. My own crop production and sales will nearly be cut in half, and I don't think the public really understands that," Diedrich said.

Kern County farmer Jenny Holtermann, who grows almonds in water districts served by the CVP and the State Water Project, said she and her husband must now rely on groundwater for most of their orchards, but may lose an 80-acre planting that receives only district water deliveries.

"If our wells fail, we will probably lose our crop," Holtermann said.

Like the Holtermanns, thousands of farmers throughout the San Joaquin Valley also are turning to groundwater, but those who want to drill new wells or deepen existing ones face waits of six months to more than a year.

On the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, citrus and olive grower Shawn Stevenson has been putting together what he calls "survival plans" for his farming business. His 1,500-acre family ranch buys water contracted through the Friant Division.

"We've been expecting a zero allocation, so we've been getting our wells in the best shape we can, tightening up our irrigation systems and figuring out how much acreage we can support," Stevenson said. "We'll put the water where we expect the best returns, and push out older trees and varieties that don't have the best market value."

He said those decisions, along with aggressive pruning and hedging of orchards and groves, will reduce his fruit production by 45 percent to 50 percent, which he calls a kind of fallowing of his permanent crops. He said these measures will also reduce production next year, because fruit set will be reduced this year to save the trees.

"I'm estimating that at least a third of my acres will produce nothing in 2015," Stevenson said. "My family has been farming here for three generations and we've never seen anything even close to what we're facing today."

Wenger noted that water shortages will harm all Californians in 2014, "but those in rural California will suffer worst of all" as production cutbacks hit agricultural-based jobs and businesses.

In Firebaugh, tractor equipment store manager Steve Malanca said his farm customers have told him that "they're not focusing on purchasing equipment, they're focusing on water. But with a zero water allocation, most farm equipment couldn't be financed anyway."

So far, Malanca said, farmers aren't turning equipment back to the dealer, but they are contacting lenders to renegotiate their equipment loans.

Meanwhile, rural communities are planning for high unemployment. During the 2007-09 drought, affected farming communities experienced unemployment levels of 30 percent to 40 percent.

"We don't know what the true unemployment rate will be in our community in the coming months," said Don Pauley, acting manager for the city of Mendota. "Some have suggested it will be more than 50 percent."

Pauley said the city's immediate focus is on meeting the needs of its citizens for jobs, financial resources, health services and food.

"Make no mistake, our current water crisis is not caused by two years of below-normal rainfall, followed by the record dry year we're having right now," Wenger said. "This crisis is the direct result of 20-plus years of inaction by politicians and policy-makers, who have failed to take the steps required to shield California from drought."

The only good that will result from this crisis, Wenger said, is if it "opens the eyes of elected officials and leads to mustering all the tools at their disposal," including water recyling, desalination, efficiency improvements and new reservoirs, "to avoid more years of loss and damage to both our economy and our environment."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.