Farmers work to cope with water supply cut

Issue Date: April 3, 2013
By Dennis Pollock
Farmer Joe Del Bosque of Firebaugh, standing in an asparagus field, says he may have to fallow more ground and reduce employees’ hours as a result of a cutback in Central Valley Project water deliveries.
Photo/Matt Salvo
Joe Del Bosque checks the irrigation system in his orchard near Firebaugh. He calls the cut in CVP water deliveries “a terrible blow.”
Photo/Matt Salvo

Growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley say they may need to fallow more land, seek out supplemental water and reduce employees' hours in the wake of cutbacks on deliveries of water from the federal Central Valley Project.

"We've already fallowed 250 acres, and now we're scrambling to find extra water," said Joe Del Bosque, who farms southwest of Firebaugh. "Our districts are doing a lot of that for us, trying to find water."

If he must fallow more ground, Del Bosque said, it may be necessary to lay off workers or to do what he did in 2009 when water deliveries were low: reduce farmworker hours from six days a week to five.

"One day a week is a big deal," he said, adding that he hopes he won't have to take that step. "It was a big deal for furloughed government workers, and it's a big deal for farmworkers. That may not show up in the unemployment statistics, but there is a definite impact."

Del Bosque said his farming enterprise "will try to hold on to everybody, but it could mean layoffs or not hiring as many people for harvesting."

Westside farmers who purchase water supplied by the CVP had already objected to the loss of hundeds of thousands of acre-feet of water during the winter, due to pumping restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. That was followed late last month by a cutback in their allocation of CVP water, from 25 percent to 20 percent, only the fourth time in 45 years that the system had reduced the amount of water allotted to farmers south of the delta.

Del Bosque called the cutback "a terrible blow." He said his planting plans were made last fall and readjusted in January. He said he had expected the 25 percent figure was conservative and that it might be boosted to 30 or 35 percent.

"We basically pull the trigger on what we're going to do," he said. "We're already in motion. We had pre-irrigated, and our permanent crops are already growing."

As upsetting as the 5 percent reduction was, some growers were still more concerned by the loss of water that did not move through pumps at a time when waterways to the north were filling.

"The real impact was what happened in December and January, when there were unusually high flows in the Sacramento River and we were not able to store much of that water because of restrictions on exporting it," said Bill Diedrich, who also farms in the Firebaugh area.

Officials at the Westlands Water District, which sells water to many Westside farmers, estimated that more than 800,000 acre-feet of water was lost from storage as it flowed to the sea. The loss of water came as pumps were throttled down to comply with a biological opinion that protects the delta smelt. That loss was exacerbated by remarkably dry months in January, February and March.

"You have to take advantage of it when you get it," Diedrich said. "This just highlights how poorly the system is being operated."

Diedrich said the further reduction "creates more panic and desperation among the people who have a hard demand, those with permanent crops." He said he will have to fallow more land or "go on the open water market" to purchase water at what he expects will be a price $100 to $150 an acre-foot higher than last year.

Westside farmer Ted Sheeley said the water reduction put him into the position of having to "re-run the water budget" and trying to get out of processing tomato and cotton contracts—something he was not able to do.

In order to supply those contracts and cut water use, he said, he is moving up his plans to expand his use of drip irrigation to another 800 acres, despite other demands that are coming now as he plants crops.

Sheeley, who farms in the Huron area, western Kings County and eastern Fresno County, has for years been moving from flood and sprinkler irrigation to drip. He said he expects all of his ground to be drip irrigated within three or four years.

"We're investing in our water systems," he said.

Sheeley had already planned to fallow some 1,300 acres, considering that last year was also a dry year and not much water was being carried into 2013. He said he anticipates having to buy supplemental water at more than $400 per acre-foot.

"It's a travesty what they've done to the Central Valley," he said, remarking that the economic toll on the region will be most sharply felt by those who live and work there. "It's so punitive to have these cutbacks."

Gayle Holman, public affairs representative for the Westlands district, said, "Some communities haven't bounced back from 2009 when the allocation was 10 percent. The last few years, they're been trying to slowly recover. There are scars that our growers and community leaders have that have not fully healed."

Westlands officials said communities in the region will face more than $1 billion in lost economic activity due to reduced water supplies, and that farmers in the district will lose $350 million in revenue because of the cutbacks.

The other years in which allocations were trimmed were 1997, dropping from 100 percent to 90 percent; 2005, from 90 percent to 85 percent; and 2008, from 45 percent to 40 percent.

Storms in November and December had built the Sierra snowpack to 140 percent of average on Jan. 1. When snow-surveying crews returned to the region last week, they found the water content of the snowpack stood at only 52 percent of average.

The California Department of Water Resources said the survey was particularly significant "because this is the time of year the snowpack normally is at its peak before slowly melting with warmer weather." The season's final survey, to be held around May 1, will check the rate of the snow melt.

(Dennis Pollock is a reporter in Fresno. 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.