Aug 18, 2008
California Water Crisis Threatens its Fruit and Vegetables

Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, called it a “double whammy” on California’s water supply: A record drought that started last year and shows no sign of stopping, and a court-ordered reduction in water deliveries to protect a threatened fish species.

Those two factors, combined with a growing population, aging infrastructure and increased ecological challenges, have contributed to California’s mounting water crisis, a crisis that threatens the very existence of the state’s agricultural heritage – including its fruit and vegetables.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture estimated that, as of July 11, 79,745 acres were left unplanted or were abandoned as a result of the drought. The majority of those acres (48,114) were cotton. In financial terms, the drought had cost the state’s vegetable industry $60.8 million by July 11, its processing tomato industry $9.6 million and its melon industry $7.1 million. The county affected the most, at least financially, was Fresno County, having lost $73.5 million by July 11. Kern County was second, with $69.5 million lost.

According to the Association of California Water Agencies, which is mounting an educational campaign about the water crisis, the Sierra snowpack was the lowest it had been in nearly 20 years during the winter of 2006-07, and Southern California logged its driest year on record.

Then, in August 2007, a federal judge ordered a massive reduction in water supplies that could be taken from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – a key link in California’s water system – to protect the Delta smelt, a threatened fish species. The order could reduce the available supply by as much as 2 million acre-feet of water – the largest court-ordered water reduction in California’s history, according to the association.

The western side of the San Joaquin Valley has been hit hardest by the drought. Growers there get their water from the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which covers roughly 1.3 million acres of irrigated land, said Ara Azhderian, the authority’s water policy administrator.

The recent shortages, though severe, aren’t anything new. The last two decades have seen a steady erosion of the authority’s water supply, much of it due to federal statutes. Those statutes paled in comparison to the smelt order, however, which basically “turned off the faucet” – cutting off the authority’s access to about 750,000 acre-feet of water last winter, Azhderian said.

But at least the region’s growers knew about that reduction beforehand and could plan in advance. They weren’t prepared for the driest spring on record and were forced to take drastic measures to salvage what they could. A lot of produce died in the field.

“It was very disruptive,” Azhderian said. “They had more out in the field than they could sustain.”

The crop losses were a blow to the region’s ag-based economy and led to lost jobs and closed businesses, he said.

The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority serves 31 districts, including the Westlands Water District. Westlands covers 600,000 irrigated acres, from the Delta down to San Diego. Growers in that district produce 95 percent of the nation’s lettuce supply in April and October, but the vast majority of that will not be grown this fall or next spring because of the water shortage. As a result, the price of lettuce will spike considerably, said district spokesperson Sarah Woolf.

The district’s “normal” annual water allocation is 1.15 million acre-feet, but it usually receives only 65 percent of that. Endangered Species Act rulings have continually blocked the district’s access to water, but the smelt order was severe. In January and February, the district lost more than 650,000 acre-feet of water it would normally have captured, Woolf said.

As a result of the shortage, growers are forgoing the high-value crops (like fruit and vegetables) they’ve been putting in the ground and are planting crops like wheat and barley, she said.

The Friant Water Authority irrigates roughly 15,000 small farms in the southeast portion of the San Joaquin Valley. Those farms generate an annual farm-gate output of about $4 billion, according to Jacobsma, the authority’s general manager.

The San Joaquin River is Friant’s main source of water, though some irrigation districts get their water from other streams or from the ground. The authority covers five counties, including significant portions of the No. 1 and No. 2 agricultural counties in the nation: Fresno County and Tulare County, respectively, he said.

Jacobsma’s authority has reserves of water that get it through the tight times, but another year of dry conditions could have drastic effects on that backup.

“We’ll squeak through these two years, but we need a wet year next year,” he said.

In Kern County, irrigated by the Friant Water Authority, there are about 95,000 acres of vegetables along with almonds, table grapes and citrus fruits. Potatoes and carrots are prominent, but there also are onions, garlic, tomatoes and melons. Growers aren’t planting on as many acres because of the drought, said Joe Nunez, a county Extension adviser.

To deal with California’s water shortage, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has offered a $9.3 billion bond that could set the stage for comprehensive improvements to the state’s water infrastructure, but there’s no guarantee it will get through the state legislature.

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