Calif. farm water shortages could linger into 2014

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Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Steve Adler, associate editor of Ag Alert.

Already struggling with short water supplies in 2013, farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have been warned that next year could be worse.

That's the assessment of Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, which buys water from the federal Central Valley Project. Growers this year are receiving a 20 percent allocation and, unless there is a very wet winter ahead, Birmingham said the initial CVP allocation next spring could be zero.

"It is projected that the combined storage in San Luis Reservoir will hit a record low at the end of August, lower than 1977, the driest year on record in California," he said.

Birmingham said the current projections for end-of-year storage for all CVP reservoirs are that storage will be well below average and as a consequence there will be very little water carried over from this water year into the next water year.

"It is for that reason and the potential restrictions on the operation of delta pumping plants that we are projecting that absent a wet December and a wet January, it is probable that the initial allocation for water users in Westlands will be zero," he said.

To cope with this year's reduced water deliveries, farmers have had to make hard decisions on how to utilize the water they have. Those who grow both annual crops and permanent crops have often fallowed the open land to use their allocation to keep the trees and vines alive. Others are pumping groundwater to supplement, and still others are buying water wherever they can find it and paying record high prices.

Farmer Dan Errotabere of Riverdale said he is paying three times the CVP contract price for supplemental water and even so, it is difficult to obtain water.

"Because of the 20 percent allocation, we have had to fallow about 600 acres and if we get a zero allocation in 2014, we will have to fallow a lot more acres than that. We will just be focusing on our permanent crops and forget about the row crops. We have been relying more and more on groundwater and that has been dropping too," he said. "This is one of the worst scenarios I have ever seen. For some of the farmers who have a large part of their operation in permanent crops, some of them are going to run out of water this month."

Farmer Shawn Coburn of Firebaugh is in a similar situation. He said he planted no row crops this year and is pumping groundwater to keep his almonds and winegrapes alive.

"I will try to buy water wherever I can find it. The problem is that there isn't any water around to buy. I'll try to pump as much as I can physically. And that is all I can do," he said.

Another Firebaugh farmer, Bill Dietrich, said that he, like most Westside farmers, has been converting his cropland to drip irrigation in order to maximize the benefits from the water that he has.

"As of next spring, I will have 100 percent of my acreage under drip irrigation. All of my row crops are drip irrigated except for one 80-acre field of alfalfa and it is scheduled to be put into drip this fall," he said. "On the Westside I grow almonds and prunes, and those are the crops that are in jeopardy. I really don't know what the future will be, even in 2014. We're just trying to get this crop harvested and put away."

Dietrich said the impacts of water shortages might not be visible to people driving through the Westside on Interstate 5, but the effects are noticeable nonetheless.

"For the public and some of the legislators who look at it from the outside, they think that everything looks pretty much the same, but the bottom line is that a lot of assets are being used up to maintain these crops, and they are going to be running out, particularly if there is a zero allocation next year," he said. "The people who aren't connected to it drive by and think everything looks normal, but just under the surface it is ready to crack."

Birmingham said it isn't just the individual farmers being affected by the water cutbacks; they cause economic impacts throughout the valley, as fewer planted acres equate to fewer people being hired to cultivate and harvest the crops.

He said that even though last November and December saw near record precipitation in California, reservoirs were not allowed to fill because of restrictions on the operation of delta pumping plants related to Endangered Species Act protection of delta smelt.

"As a consequence, from mid-December through the end of February the two projects (CVP and State Water Project) lost in excess of 812,000 acre-feet of water that is gone forever and cannot be recaptured," he said. "San Luis Reservoir did not fill, and had we been able to capture that water, notwithstanding the dry conditions in the later part of the water year, the allocation for farmers in Westlands would have been 40 to 45 percent. But instead our allocation is 20 percent."

So what lies ahead for 2014?

According to Birmingham, farmers typically make their planting decisions in November and December, but they are already making decisions for 2014 now.

"I believe that because of the forecast for water deliveries next year, farmers are making those decisions today. They are trying to conserve as much water as they can to reschedule that water from this year into next year as a means of protecting their permanent crops. It is my understanding from having talked to many farmers that they have made the decision to not plant annual crops next year and if they do plant annual crops, those plantings will be limited to less than 20 percent of what would be planted in a normal year," he said.


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