Water shutoffs, shortages imperil top U.S. agricultural region as drought continues in its fourth year

By Tim Hearden

Capital Press

FRESNO, Calif. — Roger Isom was shocked by what he saw as he drove along Highway 33 through the west side of the San Joaquin Valley: Thousands of acres of rich farmland were fallowed because of a lack of water.

“It’s fast becoming more and more like Nevada,” said Isom, who runs three organizations that help cotton and nut farmers and processors. “There’s nothing here anymore.”

In nearby Helm, Calif., almond, cotton and tomato grower Gary Beene discussed whether his grandchildren should follow his two sons into the family business.

“There’s no way to win,” the 68-year-old Beene said of the water shortages that have put some of his neighbors out of business. “It’s happening all around us, and it’s a losing battle.”

About 40 miles away in Dinuba, Calif., grower and packer Jay Gillette watched a bulldozer rip out about one-third of his navel orange grove.

“I don’t know anybody near here that isn’t affected” by water shortages, Gillette said. “I think it’s going to take some years off people’s lives. The stress is just incredible.”

A pall hovers over the San Joaquin Valley these days. Water shutoffs and shrinking aquifers threaten to turn what has long been the nation’s most productive agricultural region — producing slightly more than $22 billion in crops in 2012 — into a patchwork of abandoned fields.

The drought gripping California has forced more than 2.8 million acres statewide to go without surface water again this year, according to the California Farm Water Coalition. A large portion of that is in the Central Valley. More than half of California’s irrigated farmland will receive 20 percent or less of normal surface water supplies, forcing farmers either to drill wells to supply their crops with a shrinking supply of groundwater or to let their fields go fallow.

Drought-related water cutbacks last year caused an estimated 400,000 acres in the state to be fallowed and cost the region some 17,000 jobs. This year, fallowed acreage could top 600,000 acres and cost more than 20,000 jobs, said Craig McNamara, president of the state Board of Food and Agriculture. The Fresno County Farm Bureau estimates the amount of fallowed ground could total closer to 1 million acres.

But growers and industry groups say the decline of agriculture in the San Joaquin began well before the drought, which is now in its fourth year. They trace it back more than two decades, when the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and subsequent environmental policies greatly restricted pumping irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“I’ve been fighting this battle since 1992,” said Mark Turmon, who’s fallowed 1,350 acres of row crop land and recently took out 100 acres of almond trees near Mendota, Calif. “I think about water every day.”

Since the early 1990s, Central Valley Project water allocations to farmers south of the Delta have declined with each new environmental protection — from winter run salmon temperature controls in the San Joaquin River to biological opinions further protecting salmon and the Delta smelt.

Between 1995 and 2006 — normal years for precipitation — CVP allocations averaged 75 percent for farmers and 94 percent for urban uses south of the Delta, according to California Citrus Mutual, a trade association with 2,200 grower members. As growers without senior water rights have been getting no federal water during the drought, water allocations to wildlife refuges have only been cut to 75 percent.

Sierra Club California defends the environmental allocations, arguing the drought has taken a toll on the fish species, too. The group says it’s “essential” to have healthy rivers and streams to provide water for other uses.

“I think most farmers get that,” said Kathryn Phillips, the organization’s director. “Most farmers believe they’re stewards of the land. ... It’s not unusual to see protected riparian areas through well-run farms. You need beneficial insects, you need birds, you need wildlife. Everything works together.”

But San Joaquin farmers lament that a water system built for human use and maintained through fees paid by water users is now largely being used for environmental protection.

“I always say somebody jumped ahead of me in line at In-N-Out and took my hamburger and I already paid for it,” said Orosi, Calif., orange grower Arlen Miller, who took out some of his trees this year.

Despite taking land out of production, Miller said his irrigation costs have skyrocketed this year because his wells are yielding less, though they cost the same to operate. The alternative is to purchase water for as much as $1,400 an acre-foot — well above the $86 an acre-foot people in his district normally pay.

With no surface water available, many citrus and nut growers have taken some of their orchards out of production and used well water to maintain the rest. David Roth, general manager of Cecelia Packing Co. in Orange Cove, Calif., removed a 42-acre block of 50-year-old navel orange trees near the packing house.

“We haven’t had much (water) in the last couple years, so we’re pumping,” Roth said.

“That can get a little scary,” he said, referring to the likelihood of eventually running out of groundwater.

In some areas, water tables aren’t holding up. More than 1,800 wells have gone dry in communities around the state, McNamara said. In the Porterville area in the heart of the valley’s citrus country, about 1,100 wells have failed, said Stephanie Cortez, president of the Porterville Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s at the point now on the east side where they put up shower locations where people can shower for free,” Cortez said. “There are non-potable locations where you can fill up water jugs with non-potable water. It’s been a really big impact, and unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon.”

Last year, the state Department of Social Services started offering food assistance for drought-impacted counties, helping in places like Mendota, whose unemployment rate is more than 40 percent.

For valley dairies, which produce California’s top-valued commodity, the drought is part of a perfect storm of misfortune as the industry also grapples with milk prices below those paid under federal marketing orders. Producer groups say more than 350 dairies have either closed or left the state since 2007 because the state’s pricing formula hasn’t kept pace with escalating feed, fuel and other costs.

The average price of milk in California in the final three months of 2014 was $20.09 per hundredweight, barely above the two-year average production cost of $19.05 per hundredweight, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

But the average milk price for January through March has plummeted to $13.93 per hundredweight, said Annie AcMoody, Western United Dairymen’s director of economic analysis.

Simon VanderWoude, who raises dairy and beef cattle near Merced, Calif., and grows 1,750 acres of alfalfa, wheat and corn to feed them, fallowed about 20 percent of his corn ground this year because of a declining water table. The move is forcing him to purchase grain from the Midwest, he said.

Two of his neighbors recently gave up and sold their cattle out of state, he said.

“I’m deeply concerned about the drought,” VanderWoude said. “If I knew what was going to happen with it, I’d plan for what I could do with my business. I’d fold it up and go somewhere else, or will I be able to have a dairy in California? I do not have an answer for that right now. I just don’t know.”

California once grew 1.6 million acres of cotton and operated as many as 299 cotton gins, said Isom, who leads the California Cotton Growers, California Cotton Ginners and Western Agricultural Processors associations. This year, somewhere between 150,000 and 170,000 acres of cotton will be grown in the valley, he said.

The reason for the decline has been a steady drop in water supplies from the Delta to the valley’s west side, he said. Some 500,000 acre-feet of water was lost because of two biological opinions — one published late in 2008 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the tiny Delta smelt, the other in June 2009 by the National Marine Fisheries Service to help salmon.

The cutbacks had a profound impact on an area that has produced some of the highest quality, best yielding cotton in the world, Isom said. With its hot weather, California has grown 90 percent of U.S. Pima cotton, used for high-quality shirts and towels. While the national average for cotton yield is 650 to 850 pounds per acre, California’s average is 1,600 pounds per acre.

But now, field after field in western Fresno County remains idle.

“There’s nothing. It’s tumbleweeds,” Isom said. “In 2005 Fresno County was the No. 1 cotton producer in the country. Now it’s No. 65. We went from 25 cotton gins to five, and over 1,000 jobs were lost. That’s 1,000 jobs just from one community.”

Louie Colombini’s Westside Farmers Cooperative Gin Inc. in Tranquility, Calif., processed 150,000 bales in its peak season 15 years ago. This year it’s down to about 20,000 bales. His seasonal labor force has gone from as many as 80 workers to about 30, and he’s down to seven permanent employees from 13 just five years ago.

“The biggest effect has been on employees,” Colombini said. “Ginning used to last two or three months; now we get through in six or eight weeks. It makes it more difficult to hang around in the area for other crops.”

With the water uncertainty, many find it hard to envision what the San Joaquin Valley will look like 10 or 15 years from now. Most say ag wil

l survive, though it will likely be more consolidated as small producers sell out to larger ones.

Phillips of the Sierra Club envisions a more conservation-conscious ag industry in the years ahead. Part of the problem has been that the state and federal water projects haven’t conditioned farmers to plan for limited water supplies, so cutbacks during dry periods have left them scrambling, she said.

“Farmers need to adjust to a new reality,” she said, adding that some changes in crops and retirement of fields may be necessary. “Climate change is expected ... and that will change the amount of precipitation and kinds of precipitation we have.”

But several valley growers said agriculture’s survival will require more water storage, better conveyance and some balance in applying the Endangered Species Act. In any event, the industry will see changes.

“It’s going to shrink,” said Turmon, the Mendota area almond and row crop farmer. “It’ll contract and merge. The other situation is regulation of groundwater. I’ve got wells, but if I had a normal supply of surface water, I wouldn’t pump. I wouldn’t want to pump. But they diverted all that water to fish, or to the Delta.”

There’s already been attrition in the citrus industry, said Gillette, the Dinuba grower-packer.

“If this thing goes another few years, I think it’ll be a great opportunity for investors to buy up some land,” Gillette said.

Brad Beene, who farms cotton, tomatoes and almonds with his father and brother in Helm, tries to remain optimistic. His son wants to come back to the farm, which he admits is “a little scary.”

“We’re never going to get back what we had, but maybe there’s a happy medium,” he said.

Roth, the Orange Cove citrus packer, also has hopes that Californians will become more aware of the importance of agriculture. But as the state grapples with divisions between north and south or between the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley is often forgotten, he said.

“We’re kind of out here alone,” he said.

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