Water shortages threaten farms' future

Issue Date: August 20, 2008
Christine Souza

For Lex Iyer, the shock came in early June, when he learned that water deliveries to his orchard would be cut from 45 percent of contract amount down to 40 percent. For Shawn Coburn, the challenge is to prepare to keep his trees alive—and his employees in their jobs—if allocations drop as low as 10 percent next year.

Iyer and Coburn are among the farmers who described their efforts to cope with water shortages in a survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau. Both grow almonds, a crop that has been among the state's agricultural success stories in recent years. And both say they worry that water shortages will make that success difficult to sustain.

For the past 12 years, Iyer has farmed almonds near Gustine in western Merced County. He realized that 2008 would not exactly be his year, however, after the federal government announced water cutbacks were necessary due to the drought.

Lex Iyer of Gustine checks one of the small almonds that his water-stressed trees are producing this year. Iyer said water cutbacks have reduced the size and quality of his almond crop.

"In early June, we were told that there was going to be mandated water rationing and that we would only be able to use seven-tenths of an acre-foot for June, July and August," Iyer, a first-generation farmer, said. "We said, 'Seven-tenths of an acre-foot in the three hottest months of the year. That is going to kill our trees,' and they said, 'You can't take your water.' That was a shock and it left us scrambling."

Iyer and other irrigators who buy water delivered from the federal Central Valley Project, in both the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, learned this spring that water deliveries would be cut to 40 percent of contract amount from the 45 percent declared earlier in the year. The CVP cited "extremely dry conditions" in announcing the water cut. Supplies have been further restricted by court rulings reserving water for protected fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Iyer buys water both from the Del Puerto Water District—a CVP contractor—and from another district that has access to more-reliable water. As he harvests his almonds, Iyer said he's finding that the nuts on trees that received the reduced amount of water from the CVP are much smaller than the nuts from his trees located in the other water district.

Shawn Coburn, who farms in Fresno, Madera and Merced counties, checks a field of cotton that he was forced to abandon this year in order to divert badly needed water to his almond trees.

"Because of the water shortage we gave our trees a lot less water than we normally do. It caused the trees to be in stress so I am going to lose money on the crop because it is so light," Iyer said. "My processor stated that we probably lost 20 percent of the crop weight, so that is a huge economic loss, but obviously it is better than losing your trees. So we have lost more than we have gained."

To save some of his trees, Iyer hired an irrigation company to construct a 5,200-foot pipeline to carry water from an orchard that was receiving more water, to the water-rationed orchard.

"It cost $60,000 but it saved my crop. I am now able to harvest my crop. Otherwise I would have had an economic loss of upwards of $1 million," Iyer said.

When Iyer learned about the pending water rationing, he began contacting well drilling companies to see who could help locate more water on his property.

"I've been trying to get somebody to do a test well for me for the last eight weeks. These companies are so backed up, they tell me that they have 600 projects ahead of me," Iyer said. "They said, 'Don't call me, we'll call you.'"

In Iyer's area, the cost to drill for a well is estimated between $60,000 and $80,000 and he hears that well drilling companies expect to be busy throughout the winter, for what could be another parched year in 2009.

"I've been hearing a lot of rumbling, that if we do not have a good winter, we are really, really, going to be up the creek. That is the news among the local people," Iyer said. "If people cared enough to want to eat good, safe food, they are going to have to come up with a solution. It would take a lot of years, but if we don't start now it will never come."

Shawn Coburn farms 3,500 acres in western Fresno, Madera and Merced counties. Like Iyer, Coburn's almonds are small in size due to rationing of water and he has come to terms with the fact that this means less money for his crop.

"The yield is going to be off some out here," he said. "And then we're still trying to figure out where we are going to find some water to irrigate the trees after harvest, because post-harvest is a very important time to irrigate your trees."

But like many farmers, Coburn is just trying to get through this year so he can focus on the future.

"I'm trying to position myself that if it is a 10 percent allocation next year, that I can try to just keep trees alive," Coburn said. "I won't worry about the harvest. We will just try to grow the trees as best we can with well water, and the well water is not very good."

Coburn is also focused on what the water means for the local economy and particularly for his employees and their families.

"My workers have health insurance, they have 401(k) plans and they have kids in college—two kids at UCLA, four kids at Fresno State, two at UC Merced and one at Chico State. They are all looking at me saying, 'What am I going to do next year?'" Coburn said. "I told them that I am going to do everything I can to keep us in water out here."

Dave Baker, director of member relations for the Blue Diamond Growers almond cooperative, knows the personal stories of the Westside almond growers and others around the state who are facing limited water supplies. He said the deficit irrigation on almonds means the trees don't receive enough water to keep nuts plump, and could affect the 2009 crop as well.

"The tree itself will take water not only from the ground but it looks like it can take it from the nuts themselves, so it will make the kernels lighter, and it will also affect the bud set for the next year's crop. So there would be less potential for a good crop the following year," Baker said.

Baker added that Blue Diamond can still sell the smaller-sized nuts, but the price the farmer will receive for the product could be less.

"The big factor is, if we continue our drought and continue to have pumping problems out of the delta, then we are going to have a disaster on our hands this next year because there won't be enough water to go around," Baker added.

Chris Scheuring, managing counsel of the California Farm Bureau Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division, said CFBF has been advocating vigorously for the protection of agricultural water resources in every possible forum, including the Legislature, federal and state courts, and administrative processes like Delta Vision and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

"The delta is the switching yard of California water, and it is also an estuary with deepening biological problems. Against the backdrop of an urbanizing state and increased demand, implementation of environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act is forcing us all very quickly into a zero-sum game," Scheuring said. "Increased yield through system improvements like improved conveyance and new storage appears the only way out, unless we are prepared to accept large sacrifices of either agriculture, urban growth or environmental values."

The almond growers and Baker agreed that a disruption of the water supply to the state's farms and ranches would have far-reaching effects and hurt the many people and businesses that are supported by agriculture.

"You are talking about the livelihoods of thousands of farm families and thousands and thousands of farmworkers if this water situation isn't solved," Baker said. "That is a long-term effect. If we run into that problem, the economy of California is really in jeopardy. We have to have sensible, logical solutions to delivering water in California."

(Christine Souza is a reporter for 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.