Water worries dominate outlook for citrus growers


Issue Date: April 1, 2015
By Kate Campbell

Navel orange trees are in bloom in the San Joaquin Valley and observers describe the bloom as "good," but farmers say a fourth year of drought and a second year with no surface water deliveries will make it hard to produce a crop. For some, it may be impossible.

"It's a heavy bloom this year, which is good," Tulare County citrus grower Matthew Watkins said. "But the trees know what's going on with the drought. They want to fruit and sense the lack of rain."

The heavy bloom means there will be fruit, Watkins said, "but the trick will be to keep it on the trees. To do that, we'll have to maintain a lower stress level on the trees, which means water. That's what I'm worried about."

Bloom in his area is about a month ahead of average because of the warm winter, he said, but with a heavy bloom and record heat last week, it doesn't take much to stress the trees.

This year, the citrus bloom was officially declared March 17 in southern Kern and Fresno counties, the exact same date as the previous year—which is unusual, said Bob Blakely, California Citrus Mutual vice president.

"We like to see an even bloom; we like to see uniformity," he said. "But both of these bloom dates are the earliest I've seen in more than 20 years."

Blakely said the bloom looks "fairly strong," but that temperatures in the coming week will be critical.

"If we're going into a prolonged heat spell, that could put stress on the trees coming right out of bloom," he said.

Concerns about early-season stress place additional emphasis on the severe water shortages facing farmers in the citrus-growing region of the eastern San Joaquin Valley.

Noting that all Californians are wondering when the current four-year dry spell will end and there are no reliable answers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last week that it would maintain the "zero" water supply allocation for Central Valley Project agricultural contractors. The California Department of Water Resources was scheduled to hold its monthly snow survey Wednesday, but electronic monitoring showed snowpack levels hovering near a mere 5 percent of average for this time of year.

Watkins said the water situation for growers on the east side of the valley is worse this year, because there is no carryover water. Last year's zero allocation was difficult, he said, but farmers had some saved surface water they could use.

"Carryover water gave us a little bit of flexibility, but this year there's none," Watkins said. "Districts are trying to find other sources of water, but there's no guarantee they'll find any, even at extremely high prices. People are putting deposits down in case water can be bought, but we don't think there'll be much unless there's some late snowpack. There's just less water this year and we're running out of time."

Tulare County citrus grower Larry Peltzer said he's not sure whether he will be able to keep his full ranch in production through the summer.

"It doesn't look good," he said. "We're in a surreal state. We've never been in this condition before and it's disheartening."

Peltzer said his farm has been pumping groundwater to make up for the lack of surface water, but noted not all areas have access to aquifers.

"We're pretty nervous about groves that are in areas with underlying granite because the wells are shallow and there's no water," he said. "We're drilling holes, but we're having a hard time finding water. The reality is that closer to the foothills, we hit granite and we can't get water below ground."

Chris Kapheim, general manager of the Alta Irrigation District, said the Dinuba-based district, which serves about 90,000 agricultural acres in the citrus-growing region, made it through last year "better than I thought we would." But this year, he said, "The numbers are bleak."

"We'll be starting where we left off," he said. "The aquifer is stressed and water levels will continue to drop. That will put a lot of pressure on farmers. We've never been in this position before and I can't predict where we'll end up, because I don't know. I just hope we can make it through this year."

Peltzer said his family ranch has survived since 1915, but "I don't know if I'll be able to live out my days as a farmer here. I'm not sure we can hang on much longer.

"It's frustrating," he said. "I'm just trying to survive. We have families to feed and if we can't produce a commercially viable citrus crop, we have to do something else. This situation is not sustainable."

Growers removed a number of citrus groves last year. Blakely of California Citrus Mutual said the organization is still compiling data on acreage, so the total of citrus acres lost isn't known precisely. There has been a transition from navel-orange groves into mandarin acreage, he said, primarily because of strong consumer demand. He said he expects the state's total citrus acreage to remain relatively stable.

"What we saw last year was growers with long-range progression plans accelerating removals," Blakely said. "That was because they didn't have enough water to use on marginal, older blocks. They'll redevelop the groves when we get through this drought."

U.S. Department of Agriculture crop analysts forecast the 2014-15 crop will produce about 100 million 40-pound cartons of oranges, both navel and valencia. Grapefruit, lemons and mandarins will add another 79 million cartons to the harvest total when everything is shipped. If realized, the totals would be similar to 2013-14 production levels.

(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.