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It's official: No federal water for Central California farmers

by Rand Green | February 22, 2009
It came as no surprise, but it is now official. The U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation announced Friday, Feb. 20, a zero allocation of water from the Central Valley Project for agriculture use for 2009.

As reported previously in The Produce News, the Westlands Water district, which has historically provided CVP water to some 660,000 acres of farmland on the west side of the Central San Joaquin Valley, will be the most seriously affected by the zero allocation. With few wells to fall back on and few if any other options, west side farmers will have no choice but to let at least half of their land lie fallow this year. Westland officials expect at least 330,000 acres of cropland to be taken out of production.

Lettuce, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, onions, bell peppers, sweet corn and tomatoes (primarily processing tomatoes) will be among the crops affected.

What water is available from wells and other sources on the west side is expected to be used primarily for permanent crops such as stone fruit and almonds, although some ranchers are even abandoning their fruit and nut orchards in order to keep dairy herds alive.

The problem is not only with the federal water project. The California State Water Project is expecting to announce an allocation of just 15 percent this year. Among those affected by the state cuts will be growers in Southern California who get their water from the Metropolitan Water District.

Growers are not the only ones who will be affected by water reductions. The Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for municipal and industrial users of 50 percent and allocations for wildlife habitat of 75 percent.

Some farmers as well as out-of-work farmworkers have expressed outrage that fish should be given greater consideration in water allocations than people who grow food for humans and whose own livelihood depends on being able to farm. Unemployment in many west side communities is now upwards of 40 percent.

California is in its third year of a drought, but the current shortage of rainfall and snowpack is only part of the problem. Speaking at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, CA, 10 days prior to the Bureau of Reclamation's announcement, A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food & Agriculture, identified the water issue as "first on the list" of "all-consuming threats to agriculture" in the state. "Our water infrastructure just needs to be fixed," he said.

The state's population has doubled since the last significant improvements were made to water storage and conveyance infrastructure in California some 40 years ago.

"It's obvious that California must act, now, to complete a comprehensive, long-term plan to fix our overtaxed water system," Doug Mosebar, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement issued in response to the Bureau of Reclamation announcement. Among other things, that water plan "must recognize the crucial importance of growing food to sustain our state's increasing population."

The Fresno County Farm Bureau issued its own statement in response to the zero allocation announcement. Among other things, that statement called for "additional surface water and groundwater storage, improved conveyance through the [Sacramento River] Delta, and a return to common-sense water policies that bring back into balance water allocations for food production, municipal and rural communities, and the environment."