California's Water Future: Crops wither—along with the water supply

Issue Date: June 18, 2008
Kate Campbell

After decades of political bickering and inaction, California is on the brink of a water supply catastrophe. Today officials are calling the shortfall in the state's water supply a crisis or an emergency.

But farmers throughout the state who've had their water supplies drastically cut—see things in even more dire terms. For many, the increasing water supply shortage threatens their very survival.

Northern California had its driest spring in history this year. Southern California set records in 2007 for low rainfall. Added to this was a disappointing 2008 Sierra Nevada snowpack that totaled 67 percent of average.

Kings County farmer Bob Wilson checks the emitter in a vineyard. Like other farmers, he is diverting water from field crops to permanent crops like grapes and almonds to keep them alive.

And, as parching as the lack of precipitation can be, supply has been further reduced by court-ordered cutbacks in pumping and water transfers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to save endangered delta smelt. A trial currently under way in Fresno addressing the water needs of endangered salmon and steelhead also may result in further water delivery cutbacks.

Meanwhile major reservoirs in California are low, with Lake Oroville, the state water project's most important reservoir, just half full. The Colorado River has suffered through an eight-year drought and, while last winter's precipitation in the river's snowshed was 110 percent of average, that won't make up for years of drought.

Experts say if there's no improvement in California's precipitation during the next rainy season, the state will have less water in its reservoirs than during the state's worst drought in 1976-77. During that drought, the state's population was about 22 million residents. Today's population is about 38 million, with expected growth to more than 46 million by 2030.

The last major state-built water storage projects were completed more than 30 years ago and California has been living on borrowed foresight ever since. Now, with growing demand and limited storage capacity, the drought will leave many major reservoirs half empty.

Avenal farmer Bob Wilson produces a wide variety of crops—processing tomatoes, cotton, alfalfa, garlic, garbanzo beans, wheat, pistachios, almonds and winegrapes. He's proud of the diversity in the crops he grows and of the steps he and partner Gary Esajian have taken to make every drop of water count.

"We foresaw there would be a limited amount of water going into this year and planted a variety of crops that either require less water or were finished in the late winter and early spring," Wilson said. "That way they wouldn't compete with our tomatoes, cotton and trees and vines in the summer months."

One crop Wilson said he rarely grows is safflower, but he and other farmers have put in section after section of this oil crop because the stickery yellow plant is fairly drought tolerant and commodity prices are decent.

"I'm afraid more people will be growing safflower and garbanzos next year because both are drought tolerant," he said. "Prices for winter wheat prices have been pretty good and we're harvesting now. We've also put in pistachios, which don't need as much water as some other tree crops."

Added to these strategic cropping decisions, the farm business has invested nearly a million dollars in irrigation technology, new wells and piping systems.

"Wells in this area are fragile at best," Wilson explained. "The ground is porous and they tend to collapse. Everybody we know in Westlands Water District is pumping right now. If you have a problem, it's like going to the donut shop, take a number and stand in line. It's hard to get a well company to come out these days.

"And, wells aren't the answer to keeping us going," said Wilson, who is a past president of Kings County Farm Bureau. "It's critical that we find a solution to the supply problems and bring more water in. We've got to figure this problem out."

The problem of reduced water deliveries, dropping ground water levels and the prospect of a prolonged drought are beginning to take a heavy toll on California's $32 billion food production system. Westlands Water District said early losses from recent water cutbacks and drought in Fresno County—the nation's top agricultural producer—are more than $73 million and mounting.

Esajian Farming, which cultivates about 7,000 acres in the Avenal-Lemoore area, recently decided to abandon a section of alfalfa, opting to "sheep it down" rather than apply increasingly precious water. Throughout the area flocks of sheep are busy munching fields for forage because there's not enough water to finish the crops for market.

The Kern County Water Agency has estimated that crop losses within its service area will reach $100 million. Rangeland losses affecting cattle production have been reported at $65 million. And Westlands said those figures don't begin to cover the entire nine-county region covered by the governor's recent drought emergency proclamation.

In his drought emergency announcement, Gov. Schwarzenegger recognized the hardships that workers and their families and valley communities as a whole are suffering. He noted that hundreds of jobs already have been lost and many hundreds more are at risk.

"As California family farmers and ranchers, we applaud the governor's swift action in declaring emergencies in those counties impacted by reduced water allocations," said California Farm Bureau President Doug Mosebar.

"We must give this crucial issue the level of attention it deserves and put all the cards on the table to craft water policy that works for everyone," Mosebar stressed. "California is at a water crossroads and the governor's declaration is a wake-up call for everyone.

"Family farmers are making tough decisions right now regarding continuing with crops already in the ground, fallowing fields and stumping trees due to the extreme uncertainty of immediate and future water supplies."

In Corcoran, where cotton is king, farmers are struggling with reduced water supplies.

"We've been doing a lot of work on our existing wells and we've been drilling new wells," said Corcoran farmer Mark Hansen. "We also grow crops near Mendota in Westlands Water District and we've had to fallow 20 percent of our fields there and we've shifted 10 percent of plantings in this area to safflower, which doesn't use much water.

"We're going to have just enough water to get by—keeping our trees alive and producing a small amount of row crops," Hansen said. "There are a lot of farmers, however, who aren't going to get by. Here in the Tulare lake bed area, some of the major farm operations are abandoning 5,000 to 10,000 acres of crops that are already planted.

"Everybody is overdrafting ground water, fallowing acreage, abandoning crops and laying people off," he said. "And, keep in mind that this is using all available water with very little carry over for next year."

Hansen said he wouldn't be surprised to see 50 percent of the agricultural land in Westlands Water District fallowed next year. For cotton, plantings are down as much as 40 percent from last year, in large part because of low commodity prices. But, for the cotton acreage left, as much as 20 percent won't receive enough water this summer to finish a crop.

"It's a dire situation," Hansen said. "People are looking at losing their life savings, their farms, their livelihoods because of the cut in exports out of the delta. The investment of just getting a crop up here in California is huge and so are the losses if you don't have the water to finish them."

Hansen said the impact of all of this will fall hard on the valley's farming communities and, if it's not a wet year in 2009, the impact on towns like Corcoran will be severe.

"A peripheral canal would eliminate some of the problems," Hansen said. "And investigating the real cause of the smelt and salmon decline. They should act as soon as possible to determine the effect of things like ammonia in delta water.

"Short term, we've got to increase water pumping from the delta," he said. "And, we've got to have more storage. We can't support the population increases and not increase supply."

While construction of a peripheral canal to convey water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been debated for several years, certain impacts of such a canal for in-Delta farmers are uncertain.

In Northern California, where about 75 percent of California's available water is generated, the supply situation isn't any brighter. Mike Vereschagin, Glenn County prune and almond grower and president of Glenn County Farm Bureau, said, "Right now, we're not getting our full allocation of water. That's mainly because the Central Valley Project has cut deliveries in our area to only 40 percent of our allocation.

"I'm in the Orland Artois Water District, which gets its water delivered through the Tehama-Colusa Canal from CVP storage in Lake Shasta.

Vereschagin, who is a director for the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority, said the authority is involved in the trial currently under way in federal court in Fresno that's reviewing proposals for additional protections for endangered salmon runs and steelhead.

"One of the key components in that litigation is a proposal to pull the gates out at the Red Bluff Diversion Dam. If that happens our average usage at this time of year is 1,200 cfs (cubic feet per second) and can go up to 2,000 cfs. But if the gates are pulled out, we'll have to pump into the canal and pumping capacity is only 475 cfs.

"You can see that would have a real impact on the amount of water that can be delivered through the canal. We've been trying for the past 10 years to build a pumping plant that would deliver adequate supplies, but it's still not built.

"We're participating in the trial and watching the outcome very carefully."

Vereschagin said farmers in his area have always relied on ground water and looked to water from the district to supplement. But with these cut backs, we're probably going to have to pump 75 percent of our irrigation water versus 25 percent pumped in an average year.

"I've spent more than $30,000 in putting in additional pipelines to route water around the ranch so I can better use the water I have," he said. "We've got a lifetime investment in our orchards and without water there's the risk of losing everything.

"Some farmers in our area have already used up their allocation of district water and will have to let crops go and use well water to keep their orchards alive."

Throughout the state farmers are drying down or disking under crops while trying to keep permanent crops going because of the long-term investment. Some older orchards are being sacrificed for younger and potentially more productive orchards.

"The simplest answer to the current water supply problem is more storage," Vereschagin said. "Unfortunately, storage isn't a short-term solution. The government needs to cut through all the red tape and expedite the process of getting storage in place. We don't have years and years to figure this out."

San Diego County farmers sit at the proverbial end of the line and struggle with the state's worsening water supply situation.

Avocado grower Ken Roth, who is chairman of the California Avocado Commission's Southern California Agricultural Water Team, said, "We made a decision on our farm last December to prepare for the 30 percent required cutback issued by Metropolitan Water District (MWD) through their member agencies."

The agencies must make sure those participating in the interim agricultural water program comply. Growers who don't participate in the program pay a much higher price for water and they're not affected by the cutback.

But, there are about 6,000 avocado growers in the MWD service area and many of those, particularly in the south, participate in the lower-cost interruptible program.

"We've stumped a third of our trees," Roth said. "If we are able to get more water in the future, we can use that water on our trees and they'll come back into production, but it would take three to five years."

Essentially, Roth has taken a 30 percent cut in pay for the next three to five years and still must pay unavoidable costs such as taxes and water costs for those non-productive trees and acres.

"The emerging problem is the drought," Roth said. "It looks like 2009 has all the earmarks of being another dry year and that will lead to a continued reduction in water supply. As a consequence, MWD may be forced to extend the 30 percent cutback for a second year."

Roth explains that Met's interruptible agricultural water program provides supply to farmers with the understanding that further reductions to municipal and industrial users will be added to the reductions already mandated for those agricultural customers. So, the 30 percent mandatory cut could increase.

But, Roth points out that the interuptible agricultural program is capped at 155,000 acre-feet per year. Each member water district is allocated a portion of that amount and cannot exceed it under the program.

The current 30 percent reduction to agriculture provides MWD with an additional 45,000 acre feet of water that can placed into the pipeline for cities and industrial operations.

"That was the purpose of the agreement we made in 1993," Roth said. "This provides MWD with an alternative source of water. Farmers are providing a service to MWD and we knew what a big cut in water deliveries could look like because in the early 90s we'd just been through several drought years.

"We understood when we made the deal that this would be for a drought emergency, but it would only be for one year's duration," Roth said. "We're currently negotiating with MWD.

"The agreement we have now says farmers participating in the program will curtail use, but no duration is specified. The implication is that the agreement in 1993 was a short-term deal to help MWD get over the hump and not meant to be used year after year.

"We've maintained a very strong relationship with MWD and we're working very closely with them. If politics are set aside, MWD directors and staff have a willingness to explore this situation and work with the grower community. And, in the world of water alliances are a huge plus."

Taking a longer view, Roth said, "With Judge Wanger's decision on the delta smelt, we are forced to look at the delta differently. The court's decision has caused, in my opinion, the need for the environmental community, water stakeholders, including agricultural and the sports fishing enthusiasts, to come to the table and find solutions.

"California cannot sustain the limits that Judge Wanger has placed on the state's water delivery system. Whatever you want to call the old peripheral canal concept today, I think California needs that. We can use more surface storage, if we're going to continue to grow our population.

"We need something to happen in the next five years, the problem is that it takes 10 to 20 years to get these infrastructure projects approved and built. If something isn't done right now, farmers are going to be cut back further. It's clear to me."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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