Farmers describe impact of ‘zero’ CVP allocation


Issue Date: March 4, 2015
By Kate Campbell

Facing another year with no surface water deliveries, farmers who buy water from the federal Central Valley Project expressed deep frustration with the lack of water supplies, and deep concern about what another year of water shortages will mean for their crops, employees and communities.

The CVP said last week it expects to deliver no water to most of its agricultural customers, after also allocating no water to those customers in 2014.

Operators of the State Water Project, meanwhile, said Monday that it now expects to deliver 20 percent of contract amounts to its customers, up from an earlier allocation of 15 percent, citing improved runoff from winter storms.

But the continued "zero" allocation from the CVP, the state's largest supplier of irrigation water, will extend suffering in rural communities, according to California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger.

"The CVP announcement is both saddening and maddening," Wenger said. "It's saddening because the continued cutoff of water will prolong the impact of water shortages on farmers, their employees and rural communities. It's maddening because there is still a struggle to manage water wisely and flexibly in California, especially in dry years."

Farmers who buy water from the CVP system said the continued cutoff will require them to cut production and make other difficult choices.

Kings County farmer Tony Azevedo said he faces a double whammy: Two-thirds of his land is served by the CVP and one-third gets supplies from the Kings River system through storage in Pine Flat Reservoir, which currently stands at about 30 percent of historical average.

"I'm cutting planted acres by 40 percent, which is all row-crop land," Azevedo said. "We're not growing any cantaloupes this year—the first time in more than 42 years we haven't planted that crop. And we won't grow beans. We'll grow less garlic, onions and tomatoes. We're just trying to keep our pistachio and almond trees alive."

He said last year he couldn't get through the growing season with the zero water allocation because of well failure late in the season.

"That's why we're farming fewer acres this year," he said. "We're not going to drill any more wells. We're going to try and get by with what we have. I bought some surface water for this year, but it cost $1,500 an acre-foot. I'll get it about July and August at the peak time for the nut crops."

Azevedo said he has "run out of options."

"My biggest concern is our employees and their families," he said. "We're a strong ag region and, if we can't keep farming going in this area, everything gets shut down."

Like other farmers in the CVP service area, Tulare County farmer Vincent Sola said water shortages mean more farmland is being idled.

"We'll be relying 100 percent on groundwater just to survive," Sola said. "Without surface water to replenish the groundwater, we'll have to be creative if we want to make a crop, but it's hard."

Sola said he hopes his wells will provide enough water to avoid the need to "push over any permanent plantings," such as his almond trees. His farm also grows wheat, corn and alfalfa.

"To keep our permanent crops alive, we'll probably start by eliminating alfalfa," he said, "but dairy farmers in our area depend on the crop to feed their animals. It's a vicious circle."

Rod Radke, a citrus grower in Sanger, said so far his farm has managed to find enough water one way or another to keep going, but noted "the coming season will be harder, with wells going dry and the problems of moving water around to pick up the slack. There's no relief in sight."

Late-February storms gave San Joaquin Valley farmers a bit of a break, he said, but there wasn't enough moisture to recharge the groundwater.

"We're basically looking at beginning (the 2016) crop without water, and a lot of our future depends on how well we can maneuver water around," Radke said. "In our case, we're looking at a situation where there's no surface water available. We're not prepared to start knocking over trees just yet, but that could come."

Tulare County dairy farmer Tom Barcellos said he fallowed 25 percent of his cropland last year because of water shortages. This year, he said, the total will likely be 50 percent or more.

"We carried feed for our dairy cows over and didn't sell any feed last year," he said. "With a zero water allocation from the CVP, the entire east side of the San Joaquin Valley won't have any water, and without water in the surface ditches, the groundwater won't be replenished."

Barcellos, a Lower Tule Irrigation District director, said, "We're all going to be taxed to our fullest extent. There is no water supply. That's the issue. I have an irrigation ditch that runs by my property and it hasn't had water in it for two-and-a-half years. What a lot of people don't understand is that zero is zero."

Farmers have been using creativity to obtain water and move it to where it's needed, said consulting engineer Dennis Keller, whose company facilitates private water exchanges and transfers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Keller said some people have a little water that doesn't come from the projects, typically from pre-1914 water or banked water in certain locations, and "our job is to figure out how to get it to where it will be put to its best and highest use."

In some cases, private water supply agreements involve moving water long distances through a variety of privately and publicly owned infrastructure, most not designed for intermittent uses. Keller said the transfers require complicated agreements and contracts, as well as various forms of compensation.

"A lot of people are tapped out, their savings accounts are gone, their parents' savings accounts are gone, they've gotten jobs in town just to pay the taxes on the land," he said. "Some are pulling crops this year and hoping things improve so they can go back to farming in the future."

In his 44 years of experience, Keller said, "I've never seen anything like it."

CFBF President Wenger noted ongoing conflicts in water management, specifically about how much water is repeatedly dedicated to protection of fish and wildlife at the expense of jobs and food production for people.

"When every drop of water is more precious than ever, we must improve our ability to store storm flows when we can," he said. "People have real frustration about bureaucratic decisions that send excess water out to sea beyond what's needed for the ecosystem and delta water quality, when that water could be stored for later use, both by people and in the environment."

Wenger said the continued drought lends urgency to the current process of allocating money to be invested from Proposition 1, the water bond approved by California voters last November. He also called on Congress to move quickly "to provide relief from rigid environmental laws that have failed to balance species protections with human needs."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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