Drought poses threat to citrus in Central Valley


Issue Date: March 12, 2014
By Lisa Lieberman

In 2014, California citrus growers face one of most challenging years they have dealt with in decades. In addition to the Asian citrus psyllid and the December freeze, they must now look at the possibility of huge reductions in their water allotments for this upcoming season.

Growers, business leaders and government officials discussed these issues and more at the Citrus Showcase last week in Visalia.

The meeting occurred amid concerns that the State Water Resources Control Board might reduce water supplies significantly—or even to zero—for some senior water rights holders in the San Joaquin Valley. Already, the Central Valley Project has warned customers of its Friant Division in the eastern San Joaquin Valley to expect no water from the project this year.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, spoke at the meeting and told growers that even with recent rainfall, this is the second driest year in California in the past 100 years.

"We know that this is still going to be a terrible year even if we get some rain, so we have to plan for it continuing to be a dry year," Marcus said.

Some communities are starting to run short of water and the state is having to figure out how to get truckloads of water to people for drinking and basic sanitation, she said.

Marcus noted that farmers are already squeezing every drop of productivity they can from the water they receive and said government agencies, along with local water districts, are working on plans to increase water storage facilities over the long run.

In an effort to balance agricultural, urban and environmental needs, the board has agreed to relax some standards about how much water has to go into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to repel salinity.

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said it was a good sign that government agencies were being flexible.

This year is a crucial water year for eastside San Joaquin Valley citrus growers with senior water rights, Nelsen said, because it is the first year they are being threatened with not receiving their full allocation of water from Friant Dam.

"The chances of getting 100 percent this year are zero, but I think we'll get some," he said.

A zero water allotment could mean disaster for the 200,000 acres of citrus in the Central Valley, Nelsen said.

"What we're trying to convey to the water board is that if you kill the patient this year, it doesn't make any difference what you do next year," he said. "By not giving us any water, we could lose 10,000 jobs and close up 80 packinghouses. We'll have fewer taxes we're sending to the General Fund and have more people on welfare—all the things we're trying to avoid."

In preparation for possible reduced water allotments, Westside growers who have struggled for years with low water allotments are pulling out acres of valuable almond trees that are nearing the end of their productive cycle.

"They're pulling out some trees to save other trees," Nelsen said, adding that it's likely that citrus growers will do the same.

"If there's a grower who has trees that aren't producing a decent crop and are going to be transplanted in the next three to five years anyway, they'll probably start bulldozing trees to save their other trees," Nelsen said.

He said he hopes the water board will come up with decent water allotments for farmers soon, because some crucial time frames are coming in the citrus business.

"Our trees will start blooming by the end of this month, and we need to start irrigating to make sure we get a nice, strong bloom," Nelsen said.

(Lisa Lieberman is a reporter in Three Rivers. She may be contacted at lisal@thegrid.net.)

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