Water, economy: Uncertainties delay farmers' planting plans

Issue Date: December 2, 2009
Ron Miller

How does a farmer make planting plans for next year when no one knows if or how much irrigation water will be available? And will the economy begin to grow again?

As they await answers to those questions, farmers and ranchers all over California have put off making their crop plans as long as they can, hoping for some solid information about water allocations and the economy.

Mike Young farms in several Kern County locations and obtains most of his irrigation water from the State Water Project. He said he plans to wait as long as he can before he makes decisions about what to plant on his vacant land. He knows he needs to provide water to his permanent crops of cherries, pistachios and almonds, and has some well water.

"After three years of pumping, the quality of that water isn't that great," said Young, who is immediate past president of the Kern County Farm Bureau.

He said at this time of year, he usually negotiates for bank loans and contracts to grow crops on his vacant land, where he typically raises tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. But he said it's difficult to obtain a loan or a contract when lender and processor are not certain there will be water to produce a crop.

Other farmers face similar quandaries.

Fresno County Farm Bureau President Dan Errotabere said he has to make decisions now regarding fall planting of crops.

"Garlic is one," he said, "We're on drip irrigation now, so we can manage pretty well, but it's another year of heavy groundwater pumping that I'm a little concerned about."

Errotabere farms within the Westlands Water District, where farmers saw supplies from the federal Central Valley Project cut to just 10 percent of contract amounts this year. He usually plants cantaloupes in the fall, but isn't certain he will have enough water this autumn. Ground preparation for planting tomatoes next spring needs to be done before rains come, to avoid trying to do the work in mud. He said he hopes he and other farmers on the CVP get a decent water allocation next season, so they can reduce groundwater use.

Errotabere said he hopes to maintain the same cropping pattern in 2010 as this past season but, he added, "that also includes 1,200 acres being fallowed," a third of his ground within the Westlands Water District.

"I hope it won't be that difficult again, but we're prepared if we have to fallow, we have to fallow," he said.

Merced County farmer Pat Borelli has about 120 acres of ground in the CVP service area. He's planted winter oats and hopes there is enough rain to get a crop without irrigation.

"That's about it," he said, "Last year, I worked the ground to plant cotton and then learned I wouldn't have enough water, so I planted 20 acres of beans," which require less water.

If there is water available, he said he could plant beans again after the oats are harvested, planting as late as June.

Merced County Farm Bureau President Peter Koch said the east side of the county has adequate water. Irrigation districts in that part of the county obtain water that does not have to go through the delta and thus avoids restrictions to protect endangered species. Farmers in that region are able to plan now about how to use their ground next season.

San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Eric Larson said farmers in his county are not planning any crop production expansion this year. He noted that part of the region's water supply comes from the Colorado River, "so it is a little more secure." However, with the weak economy farmers do not anticipate any demand increase.

Irrigation water in San Diego County is among the most expensive in the state. Farmers already know they will receive a 20 percent reduction in their allocation if they buy discounted water, and a 13 percent reduction if they purchase water priced at the regular rate.

Uncertainties about irrigation water supplies also exist in Northern California.

Rice farmer David Dumars, who farms in Yolo and Colusa counties, said he had to leave his land in Yolo County fallow last season because he had no irrigation water allocation. Although he raised a good crop on his Colusa County land, he said he's not certain what the water allocation for next year might be. That makes planning difficult.

Former Glenn County Farm Bureau President Mike Vereschagin also expressed concern about what irrigation water allocations might be for next year. As a member of the Orland-Artois Irrigation District board of directors, he reported that board has not received any allocation information from the Central Valley Project.

Vereschagin said he irrigated his prune and almond orchards last summer by supplementing surface water with water from wells on his land.

"Last year, I had a couple wells go dry," he said, adding that he and all farmers hope for a wet winter to help replenish diminishing groundwater supplies.

However, even a wet winter may not provide much added irrigation water in some regions, because of Endangered Species Act requirements. Those rules and resulting court decisions require operators of both state and federal water projects to reserve more water for delta smelt, salmon and other species.

Fresno County farmer and Westlands Water District spokesperson Sarah Woolf said, "The Bureau of Reclamation (which operates the CVP) has estimated that even with the heaviest rainfall, the highest numbers that we could get would be 40 percent of our water supply allocations."

That equals about 400,000 acre-feet and district farmers need about 750,000 to 800,000 acre-feet to be farming two-thirds of district ground, she said.

"We don't think even with record rainfall we could get anywhere near that," Woolf said.

The CVP said the water year started Oct. 1 with five key reservoirs at 39 percent capacity. The 4.4 million acre-feet available compares with the 15-year average for that time of 6.7 million acre feet, or 59 percent of capacity. That is better than the 3.9 million acre-feet in storage last Oct. 1 and far better than 1977—the driest year on record—when reservoirs held only 1.1 million acre-feet of water.

Woolf said the CVP historically announces its first water allocation about mid-February.

"However, in years past we've had a pretty good ability to guess the range of where the allocation may be, based on what was in the reservoirs and if we added rainfall to that," she said. "What is different this year is we are coming off a zero and then to a 10 percent water allocation."

She added that western San Joaquin Valley farmers know that, because of the regulatory limitations, regardless of what's in the reservoirs they could be at zero again.

North Coast counties have a different problem.

"Most of our farmers irrigate with well water," Humboldt County Farm Bureau Executive Director Katherine Ziemer said. The 35 to 40 inches of rain that the region receives in an average year replenishes the water table. And a dam on the Mad River, built in the 1960s by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, creates Ruth Lake, which is currently overflowing with water.

Two pulp mills that used millions of gallons of water and provided 40 percent of the district's revenue closed. The district's urban and agricultural customers may see higher rates, as the district tries to cope with a 40 percent revenue loss.

Because of the reservoir location on the Mad River, there is no economical way to transport the water to dry locations elsewhere in the state.

(Ron Miller is a reporter for Ag Alert. He may be contacted at rmiller@cfbf.com.)

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