Editor's note: The following article was written by Dennis Pollock, a reporter based out of Fresno, Calif. This article was featured in the latest issue of the California Farm Bureau Federation's Ag Alert newspaper.
The farming "gotta-haves"—water and labor—took center stage at the 32nd Annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno, Calif., with reports of timely developments in each area.
Two days after some speakers at the conference visited mostly conservative politicians in Washington, D.C., to press for immigration reform, they were able to report some progress in the wooing of Republicans in Congress to back changes; see story.
And those who spoke on the water front painted a mostly dark picture of the dangers of overdrafting groundwater in the face of low precipitation and cutbacks in federal surface water deliveries.
The view from water panelists was influenced in large measure by low snow and rain levels in recent months, coupled with constraints on federal water deliveries because of Endangered Species Act restrictions intended to protect fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, said the "What's on Tap" title for the panel discussion was apt. His response: It's likely that, for the federal Central Valley Project, "when you open the tap next year, nothing is going to come out unless we see a dramatic change in the hydrology that we have been experiencing over the course of the last eight months."
Even if there is average precipitation, he said, water allocations for CVP agricultural customers south of the delta are likely to first be set at zero, and then possibly upgraded to 5 percent or 10 percent.
"We're facing a repeat of what we saw in 2009, when nearly half of the bare ground (in Westlands) was fallowed, there was incredible unemployment and people stood in line to receive food that included carrots grown in China," Birmingham said. "That's a tragedy, unconscionable."
Both Birmingham and Brent Walthall, with the Kern County Water Agency, said availability of groundwater has been a key to growers in weathering challenges in recent years. But each said that has had its costs.
In Westlands, Birmingham said, groundwater use has led to further land subsidence. The Kern County agency has 14 groundwater banking programs that enable farmers to survive two or three years of drought, but Walthall said he would like to see changes in deliveries of water that could better assure a more stable water supply, given that five of the top crops in the county are permanent plantings.