FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- Farmers in the most prolific agricultural region in the country should be planting winter romaine lettuce and calculating spring cantaloupe acreage at this time of year.
Instead the romaine packing company left this year for the searing Sonoran Desert of Arizona, where there is more reliable water. And cantaloupe? Who knows whether there will be water to irrigate it.
"How bad does it have to get for people to take action?" farmer Jeremy Freitas asked a panel of state agricultural officials Wednesday, choking back tears.
They had come to California's agricultural heartland for an update on the state's water crisis. They left hearing that -- even after a year of discussing possible quick fixes to the delivery problems that have fallowed tens of thousands of acres, forced bankruptcies and contributed to record unemployment -- farmers are no more certain about their water supplies.
As California prepares for its fourth year of drought, farmers are nervous in California's San Joaquin Valley. The valley's eight counties, if they were their own state, would be the top producing one in the nation. Nearly all the U.S. cantaloupes, garlic, almonds and processing tomatoes come from here. And so do nearly 400 other commodities -- more than anywhere else.
The lack of water in the state's reservoirs, coupled with the environmental collapse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta where water from the state's wet north is pumped south to irrigate fields, has restricted the amount of water some of the state's most prolific farmers receive to as little as 10 percent of normal.
"It's October going to March quickly and we can't seem to get an agency to move," said farmer Dan Errotabere, who lost his romaine contract when the local packinghouse moved to Yuma. "We need action. We need agreements now. We need certainty in the Central Valley now."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants a special legislative session this fall to look at issues surrounding California's aging water infrastructure, built 50 years ago for a population one-third the size. The most ambitious, a peripheral canal to move water from the north around the Delta, is at least 15 years away.
Meanwhile, farmers have been begging for several quick fixes so they count on water in 2010, including temporary suspension of the Endangered Species Act so water can be pumped to them even if it kills threatened smelt. Congress once granted a temporary reprieve to New Mexico but so far has declined to do for California.
Also unresolved after a year of discussions: environmental issues related to transferring water from wet regions to dry ones; a clear sense of how much agriculture contributes to the environmental degradation killing smelt and salmon in the Delta compared to urban impacts; and a "two-gates" project that would block fish from the large pumps that transfer water from the Delta into delivery canals but would allow farmers water in the spring.
This year nearly 500,000 acres were left fallowed across the valley, half of that in the Westlands Water District, where farmers historically have created the state's highest yields of almonds, garlic and tomatoes with the most junior water rights. Several thousand acres of almonds and pomegranates died, though canals carrying water to Southern California passes by them.
Across the region farmworkers were idle, hardware stores suffered lost sales and tractor dealers didn't move John Deeres. Food banks turned away hungry families.
University researchers estimate $700 million in farm losses in 2009 alone, not counting taxes or the loss of value on farmland where water is no longer reliable.
"You think we had a tough year this year?" said Marvin Meyers, an almond grower on Fresno County's dry west side. "Wait 'til next year."
Farmers and the advisory board of the California Department of Agriculture said the state's $36 billion agriculture industry cannot afford another season of uncertainty. More packing houses they depend on to send their fruits, nuts and vegetables around the world will move to more reliable areas -- across the border into Mexico they fear -- if they cannot count on a reliable supply.
Another year of pumping salt-laden water from underground aquifers could kill their soil, they say. Board members warned that the Westlands Water District on the valley's west side is the first to be hit by the crisis, but the water problems are spreading to the state's other agricultural regions.
Some avocado growers in San Diego County are cutting trees back to stumps because the limited available water is too expensive.
"Where will the next shoe drop?" said board member Adan Ortega Jr.