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Trees wither as their water supply runs dry

Issue Date: July 15, 2015
By Ching Lee
Merced County farmer Tonetta Gladwin stands in an orchard of struggling fig trees that will not produce any fruit this season due to lack of water. In July, these trees should have thick canopies of big, green leaves, but the trees are dropping their yellow leaves as they would in the winter. Gladwin has had no surface-water deliveries this year and does not have access to groundwater.
Photo/Ching Lee
Tonetta Gladwin shows how her mature fig trees have suffered from dieback due to lack of water in the winter. Sufficient rainfall usually protects the trees from frost, but the drought and lack of irrigation have hurt the trees, reducing fruit production.
Photo/Ching Lee

As a third-generation fig farmer, Tonetta Gladwin said she has always been proud of her orchards, particularly when visitors tell her how beautiful her trees are. Lately, she gets emotional talking about how sickly those trees look from a lack of water and how she may lose them.

"I don't know that I can come back from this," she said. "You become emotionally attached to your land and to your trees, and to watch them suffer, knowing you're failing to take care of them—it's hard."

Fig trees are used to desert conditions and are very resilient, she noted, but with zero water allocation this year and no access to groundwater, Gladwin said many of her younger trees will likely not make it.

Eastern Merced County, where she and her husband Blair farm, historically has not been subject to major water restrictions, and growers such as the Gladwins have largely depended on surface-water deliveries with little need to tap the aquifer.

"Never did I think that I wouldn't have water," she said.

Though 2013 was the first year Gladwin faced water cutbacks from the Merced Irrigation District, she said her trees were minimally affected because of their drought-tolerant nature. But the multi-year drought began to take its toll last year, when she saw her fig production drop by 40 percent.

With no water deliveries this year, Gladwin resorted to using her domestic well just to keep her more-mature trees alive. But her younger trees are on parcels without any access to groundwater. There will be no production from those trees, she said, and what crop she's managed to salvage from the older trees is about 16 percent of normal, with much of the fruit aborted due to stress from lack of water.

Gladwin lamented that drilling a well was never an option for her because of her narrow profit margin and small acreage. With no water, she was unable to secure a crop loan this year. She's now operating on money from her husband's other business and her salary as a school counselor. She's also selling one of her ranches in order to pay her mortgages.

Much of her crop is usually destined for Japan and Canada, both of which pay top price for fresh figs. But exporting the crop would take longer to get paid, she noted, so she's now forced to sell her figs at a lower price and only to local buyers who can cut her a check right away so that she could pay her employees.

But with so little production this year, Gladwin said she was unable to hire her regular work crew, which normally consists of 65 pickers during the crop's first harvest; this year she had 18. She usually employs 25 people in the packing shed, but she kept just one.

The Merced Irrigation District recently took emergency action to help its growers by releasing about 10,000 acre-feet of stored water from Lake McClure, to be delivered during the last two weeks. Growers are allocated about 0.02 to 0.04 acre-feet per acre, or a quarter to half acre-inch per acre, at $100 per acre-foot.

At that cost, Gladwin said such a small amount of water would not help her deep-rooted fig trees this late in the season. But for farmers with row crops or nuts, that water would allow them to rely less on their wells, she added.

About half a mile from Gladwin's farm is Mike Kleiber, who bought some of that district water to help keep his 2- and 3-year-old walnut trees alive. He usually also farms cotton, corn and wheat, but he had to fallow the majority of his ground except for 20 acres of corn on an isolated parcel with a well. His other well went dry, as did his domestic well. Money has been tight, he acknowledged, and most of his income this year has come from his custom-farming business.

"That's the only thing that's keeping me afloat right now," he said.

But with no surface water available and so much land sitting idle, Kleiber said his custom farming also has suffered a 50 percent decline, forcing him to let go some of his employees.

Growers with permanent crops and who rely largely on surface-water deliveries are "basically in survival mode," said Anthea Hansen, general manager of Del Puerto Water District, which contracts with the federal Central Valley Project.

The district serves about 45,000 acres in western San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties, with about 25,000 of those in permanent crops. Its water allocation from the CVP has been zero the last two years and 20 percent the year before. The district has managed to purchase some water, mainly through water transfers, Hansen said, but with it priced at $700 to $900 an acre-foot, many growers are irrigating just enough to keep their trees alive.

Jim Jasper, who owns Stewart & Jasper Orchards, an almond grower, huller and processor in Newman, said he had no choice but to purchase this water to protect his orchards, his company and the 175 people he employs. He also doesn't want to lose the growers whose crop he processes and the customers who buy his almonds. But paying nearly $1,000 per acre-foot for water is not sustainable, he said.

"I've been able to do it because I'm trying to save my investment, but I can't do it year in and year out," he said. "I can't make money doing it. So nobody would want to do that. We need water affordable, and for almonds, that could be $150 to $200 (per acre-foot) at the most."

Jasper has already removed 20 percent of his almond acres, which has reduced his production. Not giving his trees sufficient water, some of which is poor quality, has further hurt his production, he said. That means a shorter season and less work for his employees.

Barat Bisabri, who grows citrus, almonds and pistachios on the west side of Stanislaus County, said his entire survival depends on surface water from the federal project, as he has no access to groundwater. He dug eight test wells at a cost of $500,000 in the last two years—and came up empty.

This year, he's paying about $1.2 million for water, up from $110,000 in 2013, to irrigate 535 acres. He's already pulled out 85 acres of navel oranges and grapefruit, because the return on those crops at the high cost of water would have resulted in a loss of $1,500 per acre.

His biggest concern now, he said, is whether he will receive all the water he has purchased, half of which still sits behind Shasta Dam to benefit federally protected fall- and winter-run chinook salmon. It is unknown whether alternate water sources will be delivered to growers in time.

Bisabri said he has calculated the exact amount of water he needs to produce a marketable citrus crop this year, and giving his trees less than that would result in small fruit that would not be worth picking.

"If they don't deliver that water, we will definitely go bankrupt," he said. "Unfortunately, in this business, it's all or nothing."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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