Nov 18, 2009
Growers Getting Desperate in California Water Crisis

Like a lot of growers on the western side of California’s San Joaquin Valley, Joe Del Bosque has had to cut back on his plantings. Water shortages forced him to fallow roughly half his 2,300 crop acres this year – even though he’s still paying rent on much of the land. To protect the “huge investment” he made in his 660 acres of almond trees, he had to cut back on his cantaloupes, even some of his asparagus. These days, water for his drip irrigation system is just too precious a commodity to waste on less valuable crops.

His crop reductions have led to labor reductions, too. He normally employs 20 or so year-round employees and about 350 seasonal workers, but had to let nearly half of them go. Those lucky enough to still have jobs had their hours cut.

The story is the same for growers and farm communities all along the west side of the valley: Massive water shortages, hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres and skyrocketing unemployment levels (though some have said unemployment levels would be high even if there was adequate water).

If irrigation water is as scarce next year as it was this year, Del Bosque predicted they would all be out of business.

Too dry

California is in its third year of drought. Rainfall in the northern part of the state and snowfall in the mountains have been lower than normal. The general public is starting to feel the effects, thanks to water rationing in populous areas, but farms in need of water for irrigation probably have been hit the hardest. In September, USDA declared 21 counties to be natural disaster areas. Eligible farms in those counties can apply for emergency federal loans to help pay for losses caused by the drought.

California’s abundant supply of vegetables and fruit is under threat from this agricultural disaster. The state’s lettuce acreage dropped 5-10 percent this spring and summer, due partially to water shortages. Cantaloupe and processing tomato acres have been shifted out of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, a key production region that has been hit especially hard, according to Dave Kranz, manager of media services for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

California growers get their water from two main sources: the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project (CVP) and the California State Water Project. Combined, the two systems deliver millions of acre-feet of water annually. Both systems delivered less than usual this year, but court decisions have pretty much put a clamp on the CVP supply.

Fighting to survive

Joe Del Bosque gets his water from the federal CVP. Most of his acres are located in the San Luis water district, near Firebaugh, Calif. As a grower and member of the California Latino Water Coalition, he’s familiar with the particulars of the crisis.

Many claim California is in its third year of drought, but in Del Bosque’s opinion, it’s been two years of natural drought followed by one year of regulatory drought. Court-ordered water reductions to protect smelt and salmon contributed to a federal water allocation that was only 10 percent of normal this year, despite near-normal precipitation levels, he said.

Strange as it might sound, farmers in the federal water districts were lucky to get 10 percent. In February, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation predicted they would get nothing.

Del Bosque has been farming in the same area since 1985, and he’s never seen the water supply get so tight. The lowest yearly allocation he ever saw was 25 percent of normal – until this year.

He and other growers do what they can to conserve what water they have and get extra from other sources, but their farms can’t survive on a 10-percent supply for long, he said.

“Anybody who doesn’t have wells or other reliable sources of water stands to lose their farm.”

But well water isn’t ideal. The salinity is high, which can damage crops. And even if water is available from private wells or other districts, it’s not cheap. Typically, water in Del Bosque’s district costs about $100 per acre-foot. On the open market, the same amount can cost as much as $450, he said.

“It’s extremely expensive, but you have to do what you have to do.”

Del Bosque also has acres in the Westlands water district, part of the CVP system.

Westlands supplies about 700 growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Of the district’s 530,000 farmable acres, 260,000 were not farmed this year. It’s been a “terrible situation,” said Sarah Woolf, spokesperson for Westlands.

Like other federal districts, Westlands got a 10 percent allocation this year. Woolf doesn’t expect it to be much better next year, regardless of precipitation levels. The court-ordered restrictions will see to that, she said.

The east side of the San Joaquin Valley hasn’t fared as poorly. The Friant Water Authority, a CVP entity that covers about a million acres among 15,000 farms, got about 80 percent of its normal water allocation – a “fairly decent” situation, according to General Manager Ron Jacobsma.

In February, growers in the authority were expecting to get only 15 percent of their average supply, so 80 percent felt like a blessing. They were able to meet the majority of their irrigation needs, Jacobsma said.


A big storm in October made people hopeful about next year’s water supply, but nobody knows for sure. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation won’t know how much water it will be able to deliver until February – and even that estimate won’t be totally accurate.

But praying for more rain won’t be enough. Californians are now keenly aware of the state’s water crisis, and lawmakers have been working feverishly to come up with solutions. Much has been achieved, but a lot obviously needs to be done, said Mike Wade, director of the California Farm Water Coalition, which educates the general public about farm water issues.

In Wade’s opinion, California’s water infrastructure needs to be overhauled. The ability to transfer water from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity needs to be improved, and wet-year flows that aren’t being collected need to be captured and stored. Much discussion has centered around building new storage facilities to help with all of that, but it wouldn’t be cheap and it would take at least 10 years to finish. That might sound like a long time, but it’s an investment in the future that California needs, he said.

A lot of people are pushing for more dams and reservoirs, but the cost of water coming out of those new facilities would be significant – probably more than a small farm can afford, said Katy Mamen, director of the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative.

The initiative, which represents mostly small and mid-sized farmers, doesn’t have an official position on building new dams and reservoirs. Its members are focused on a more decentralized approach to saving water: soil moisture monitoring, on-farm ponds, improved irrigation technology – low-tech management practices that every farm can apply, Mamen said.

Current Issue

Vegetable Growers News July/August 2024 cover image

Spraying tech

Smart crop monitoring solutions

FIRA preview

Labor challenges persist in the fruit and vegetable growing world.

A&M Farms’ embrace of tech

App technology

Veg connections: Cover crops

National Plant Diagnostic Network: Plant health at a crossroads

GLEXPO preview

Fresh Views: sustainability program

Business: succession

Ag Labor Review

Farm Market & Agritourism

see all current issue »

Be sure to check out our other specialty agriculture brands

produceprocessingsm Organic Grower