Lack of water leads to more land fallowing

Issue Date: March 4, 2009
Steve Adler

Facing the probability of a zero allocation of Central Valley Project water deliveries, many western San Joaquin Valley farmers will abandon plans for planting annual crops like cotton and processing tomatoes in order to divert whatever water they have to permanent crops like almonds, pistachios and grapes.

That's what Mendota farmer Mike Wood and his brother, Doug, are doing. Partners in Wood Brothers Farming, located some 15 miles west of Mendota on farmland adjacent to the California Aqueduct, the Woods are fallowing about 750 acres of the 2,000 that they farm. Their primary effort will be focused on keeping alive the 300 acres of 4-year-old almond trees that they own and another 500 acres of almonds that they manage for a neighbor.

Mendota farmer Mike Wood stands in a field that he is fallowing this year because of the announced zero allocation of federal water deliveries. He was going to plant processing tomatoes in the field, but abandoned the idea in order to divert water to his almond trees.

Similar decisions by farmers throughout the Central Valley who rely on federal and state water deliveries could lead to some 847,000 acres of farmland laying idle this year because of water shortages, according to an estimate from economists at the University of California, Davis.

In its initial projection of water supplies last month, the CVP warned its agricultural service contractors of a potential "zero allocation." The State Water Project estimates it will deliver only 15 percent of requested water.

The UC economic study estimates the water shortages could lead to the loss of as many as 80,000 jobs in the Central Valley, and up to 95,000 jobs statewide.

Mike Wood knows first-hand about the loss of jobs. He said he thinks the general public is sympathetic to the plight of the farmer, but most people don't see the extent of the problem.

"There is a domino effect here of people losing their jobs. People who believe that what's going on isn't going to affect them are probably not as well informed as they should be," he said.

He noted for example that at this time of year he usually would be employing 10 full-time irrigators. This year he has two. Of his two full-time tractor drivers, one currently works on an "as needed" basis and Wood says he doesn't know when, or if, he will be able to call back the other driver.

"Last year we didn't fallow anything, but it is a lot more complicated this year," Wood said. "This year going in, not knowing just what we will get in the way of water deliveries, we went into survival mode. Whatever canal water we manage to obtain will be dedicated to the trees."

There are four wells on the farm that provide some water, but of very low quality. Wood says it is akin to seawater. And it is expensive to pump from a depth of 650 feet, using 600-horsepower diesel engines. Last year when diesel fuel hit $4 per gallon, it cost about $250 an acre-foot to pump well water. Fuel prices have come down, but it is still cost-prohibitive for extensive pumping of well water and Wood said he's heard rumors that fuel prices will skyrocket again this summer.

"It's a two-edged sword for us because the crops we can grow with well water are not cost effective to grow because of the low commodity prices. Cotton is completely out this year for the first time in the history of this ranch. Fifty-eight years, and this will be the first year ever without cotton," he said with a shake of his head.

In their quest for alternative crops that can handle the salinity of well water, the Woods this year are planting 500 acres of oats for seed, 200 acres of alfalfa for seed and 175 acres of garlic. All will be irrigated with well water.

"This is the first time that we've ever grown oats. A person just has to start branching out in order to come up with a crop that might work in the worst-case scenario," he said.

Wood said he knows that California is in the midst of a drought, but he also said that dry weather forms only part of his region's water dilemma.

"We have a double whammy going on now. We are in the midst of a truly meteorological drought and also in the midst of a regulatory drought with the Endangered Species Act," he said.

ESA protection for fish species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta restricts movement of water from delta pumps operated by the CVP and the state project.

"In the absence of our legislators actually getting a clue as to what is going on out here and doing something about it, our hopes of being sustained for a long period of time are very grim," Wood said.

It takes about 3 1/2 acre-feet of water to produce an almond crop and about 1 foot of water to simply keep trees alive. For Westside growers who don't have wells, the situation is very serious, he said.

"There are people within a five-mile radius of here who are not going to survive this. It's depressing, there's no other way to put it. The anxiety level is high out here," he said. "I'm very concerned about other people, but one reaches the point where your focus turns inward and you ask yourself, 'How do I survive?'"

As part of their survival mode, the Woods are hesitant to take on any additional expenses this year. When their almonds were younger, they were able to farm them using their row-crop equipment, but now that the trees are four years old that has become more difficult.

"We are in a position now where we need low-profile tractors, we need to buy a spray rig and maybe some harvest equipment. My brother and I sat down and had a heart-to-heart talk about where we were going to go with this and we decided we are on hold with any purchases. There is no reason to cover our business with that kind of debt when we really don't know what kind of longevity we are going to have with regard to our livelihood," he said.

"The other change is that my brother and I find ourselves doing some of the tasks that we'd sworn off years ago because they were tasks we grew up doing and we thought we graduated to a higher job description, to put it that way. We find ourselves driving spray rigs, road graders for ditches, all of these things that are part and parcel to the survival mode. We are trying to hang in there and keep going," he said.

Wood says there have been rumors going around that because of the recent storms adding to the Sierra snowpack that farmers may end up with a small allocation of federal water.

"Ten percent is the highest number I've heard, but it will more likely be in the neighborhood of 5 to 7 percent, but that is just a guess on my part. The other part of that issue is that by the time those decisions take place it may be too late," he said.

Mike and Doug Wood both have sons in their mid-20s who are college graduates and who hope to take over management of the farm when the two brothers retire.

"They will both come back here as fourth-generation farmers," Mike Wood said, "if the farm is still here."

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

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