Drought To Cut Off Federal Water To CA Farms

By: Garance Burke, Associated Press Email
By: Garance Burke, Associated Press Email

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Federal water managers said Friday
that they plan to cut off water, at least temporarily, to thousands
of California farms as a result of the withering drought gripping
the state.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said parched reservoirs and
patchy rainfall this year were forcing them to completely stop
surface water deliveries for at least a two-week period beginning
March 1. Authorities said they haven't taken such a drastic move
since the early 1990s, the last time California struggled through a
prolonged drought.

The situation could improve slightly if more rain falls over the
next few weeks, and officials will know by mid-March if they can
release some irrigation supplies to growers.

Farmers in the nation's No. 1 agriculture state predicted the
dire shortages would cause consumers to pay more for their fruits
and vegetables, which will have to be grown using expensive well
water.

Jeff Peracchi, a pomegranate and grape grower in the small
Fresno County town of Huron, said he was winnowing his staff down
to a skeleton crew because without water, there wouldn't be much
fruit to pick.

"I can't just say I won't farm this year - I have to do
something. But I'm having to lay off guys who have been with us for
years," Peracchi said. "At this point, I'm planning to farm to
keep the fruit as healthy as I can, but I'm not sure I'm going to
be able to be profitable."

The drought could cause an estimated $1.15 billion dollar loss
in agriculture-related wages and eliminate as many as 40,000 jobs
in farm-related industries in the San Joaquin Valley alone, where
most of the nation's produce and nuts are grown, said Lester Snow,
director of the Department of Water Resources.

California's agricultural industry typically receives 80 percent
of all the water supplies managed by the federal government -
everything from far-off mountain streams to suburban reservoirs.
The state - which runs a separate system of pumps and canals -
supplies drinking water to 23 million residents and 755,000 acres
of irrigated farmland.

Farms supplied by flows from the state will still get 15 percent
of their normal deliveries, but the combined state and federal
cutbacks will leave more than 1 million acres of fields and
orchards with no aboveground water supply, Snow said.

"Water is our life - it's our jobs and it's our food," said
Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the farm bureau in Fresno
County. "Without a reliable water supply, Fresno County's number
one employer - agriculture - is at great risk."

California depends on winter snow accumulating in the Sierra
Nevada for much of its summer water supply, when crops are most
thirsty. But January was one of the driest winter months on record,
and a series of storms in the last two weeks did little to boost
reservoir levels since most of the rain was absorbed by the dry
earth.

Both the state and federal reservoirs have now reached their
lowest levels since 1992.

And in the last 15 years, the demand for water has only risen as
the state's population has grown by more than 9 million people, and
endangered fish and other native species dependent on freshwater
have come under threat.

This year's dwindling supplies will have to be routed to cities
to ensure residents, hospitals and fire crews have enough to meet
minimum health and safety needs, said Don Glaser, the federal
reclamation bureau's Mid-Pacific Region director.

"There just isn't enough water in the system," Glaser said.
"The bottom line is it's going to be a tough year for us."

The water shortages are so severe most cities will have to start
mandatory ration programs by summer, and residents will be asked to
reduce their usage by 20 percent, Snow said.

"You've got to think about water as a precious resource," he
said. "It may seem a stretch to conserve 20 percent of your water,
but that's nothing in comparison to the consequences of the drought
and job loss in agriculture."

Supplies for crops also have been restricted by several court
decisions cutting back deliveries that flow through the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a freshwater estuary that is home to
a native fish federal scientists believe is on the brink of
extinction.

While some rice farmers north of the delta have extra water to
sell, pumping restrictions designed to protect the native delta
smelt could keep some of that water from flowing to those willing
to pay for it.

John Diener, whose family has been farming on the valley's
western edge since the Great Depression, said he dug two wells on
his ranch after 1991, the last time federal water managers cut
initial deliveries down to zero.

He's planning to use brackish groundwater from the wells to keep
his wheat crop alive, but is worried his almond trees could become
stunted if he can't stretch his supplies.

"I'm not going to cry about it, but you could actually ruin
your orchard because the trees just might not come back," said
Diener, who farms about 5,000 acres near Five Points. "Last time,
we just kept moving forward and did the best we could. If you don't
have the water, what else are you going to do?"


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