Low water supplies leave farmers in a bind

Issue Date: April 11, 2018
By Christine Souza
Joel Allen, a Central Valley Project grower who farms row and field crops in the Westlands Water District west of Firebaugh, says he hopes the CVP increases its 20 percent water allocation for south-of-delta water contractors.
Photo/Lisa Lieberman
Westlands Water District grower Joel Allen prepares a field for planting cotton, despite a current water allocation of 20 percent. Allen says the field could be planted if the federal Central Valley Project increases the water supply.
Photo/Lisa Lieberman

With reservoirs at or above average storage levels and the Sierra Nevada snowpack improved by storms in March and early April, farmers await word from federal and state water agencies about whether water allocations might improve.

During a winter in which the snowpack reached only about half of average levels, both the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project told most of their agricultural customers to expect 20 percent water allocations this year.

Conditions improved during March and early April, and water managers told the State Board of Food and Agriculture last week they are trying to determine if that could allow for improved allocations.

David Murillo, director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region, which operates the CVP, said federal fisheries agencies remain concerned about storing enough cold water in Lake Shasta to meet the needs of endangered fish.

"We believe that we are on the bubble there, but we should be able to meet these allocations," Murillo said, adding that the water in Shasta is currently "warmer than we would have hoped."

The agencies plan to rerun hydrology models to see if last week's storms will make a difference, he added.

Meanwhile, Joel Allen, a CVP grower who farms row and field crops in the Westlands Water District west of Firebaugh, said the low allocation and lack of certainty from year to year "is a far cry from where we need to be."

"It's not a good situation," Allen said. "We're hoping for a better allocation and honestly, that's not the case. I think there is enough water in the system to support that, but once again, we're given the shaft and taking a backseat to the environmentalists, so we're not happy about it. We want some type of continuity or guaranteed water source. Every year is a guessing game."

Though he and other growers can carry over a percentage of water in their accounts from last year, Allen said that won't be enough. He believes he will have to purchase expensive water on the open market to supplement whatever supply he receives.

"I'm just a small row crop farmer trying to make a living and trying to provide for my family. It's been very, very challenging; a lot of sleepless nights," Allen said.

"I've been dealing with this for 20 years and it's to the point where I'm about ready to raise the white flag, but we're fighters," he added.

Allen, who grows grains, cotton, cantaloupes and dryland crops, said one of his biggest challenges this year was securing financing.

"In 2014, the water allocation was 0 percent; in 2015, 0 percent; and in 2016, 5 percent. I think banks pulled the reins in and said, 'Hey we've got to make sure these guys have a more reliable source of water,'" Allen said.

Some of his neighbors have put in deep water wells, Allen said, adding, "I haven't done that yet, because I've been on a financial limb, and I don't want to continue breaking that branch."

Allen has started ground preparation for planting about 900 acres of pima cotton and said he hopes the CVP allocation increases, to provide the water needed to support the crop.

North of the delta, Jim Jones, who farms near Orland, said the initial 20 percent allocation water contractors received puts growers in a "holding pattern," limiting them from moving forward with planting and settling contracts with processors.

"The hangup is, why are we limited to 20 percent? If you look at the volume of water in Shasta, it points to a higher than 20 percent allocation," said Jones, who sits on the boards of the Orland-Artois Water District and the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority, which contract for CVP water. "People would like to go out and sign up for crop contracts, but people are really hesitant. It's really frustrating."

Jones also works at Tri Counties Bank, handling agricultural accounts, and said given the current water situation, he must ask growers interested in loans about their budgets, including water source, allocation and access to surface water.

"We need to be assured that they have enough water to grow the crops that they say they are going to grow on paper," he said.

Jones said an increase in the CVP allocation would be "a welcome relief and would ease stress, and likely add more water orders for our water district and lower the cost of our water."

Saying he hesitates to use wells to irrigate the almonds, table olives and feed that he grows, Jones said he might resort to that for almond irrigation—and that he might need to fallow ground reserved for growing feed.

In Kern County, Jason Giannelli, general farm manager at his family farm in Bakersfield, purchases water from two districts: one that receives water from the State Water Project and another with a mix of SWP and CVP supplies.

"There is no certainty at the moment," Giannelli said. "Everything is up in the air, but we've got to continue with our plan of planting our crops. We're able to make it work because we do have wells that supplement, but we're also stretched thin because our water schedule is going to have to be just right on time."

A grower of permanent, row and field crops, Giannelli said the low allocation will impact many farmers, and he expects to fallow about 300 acres that would have been planted to cotton and corn.

"We are a little bit fortunate since we are not solely reliant on CVP for water, but we're up in the air on how long we'll have surface water," he said.

A representative of the State Water Project, California Department of Water Resources Chief Deputy Director Cindy Messer, told the state agriculture board meeting that "we do anticipate that our allocation numbers will go up."

CVP water supply updates are posted at www.usbr.gov/mp/cvp-water/index.html.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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

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