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Are ditches on West Side farms one-quarter full or three-quarters empty?

by Rand Green | April 13, 2010
In late February, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that because of above-normal precipitation year-to-date, the Central Valley Project, which provides water to farmers served by the Westlands Water District on the once-bountiful West Side of California's San Joaquin Valley, would get a 5 percent water allocation for 2010 and that if the rainfall continued, the allocation might be increased to 30-40 percent.

Westlands, along with various farm groups and many valley politicians, urged the bureau to make an announcement of an increase in the allocations as soon as possible, as growers needed to make planting decisions. Many also needed assurance of higher water allotments in order to get bank financing for their 2010 crop.

The bureau responded by making its next announcement in mid-March rather than waiting until month's end, but the announced increase was only to 25 percent.

On one hand, growers are grateful to get whatever water they can, but on the other hand, they feel shortchanged that they are getting only a quarter of their normal allotment even in a wet year.

Last year, hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland on the West Side, much of it once dedicated to fruit and vegetable crops, were taken out of production when the bureau reduced allocations to Westlands to zero (later increased to 10 percent), citing environmental regulations and court decisions favoring restricting pumping of the water out of the Sacramento River Delta in order to protect fish in the delta.

Denis Prosperi, a San Joaquin Valley grape and almond farmer and chairman of a farm water advocacy group called Farmers Protecting the Valley, told The Produce News March 31, "When you've got 120 percent of normal rainfall and you're only getting 25 percent [of normal water allotment], it tells you that something is wrong." The allotment should have been at least 50 to 75 percent of normal, he said. "Basically they are giving us half the water they should and telling us how lucky we are that they did it."

The repercussions from the restricted water deliveries will be that many farmers "aren't going to get financing and a lot of people aren't going to farm," he said.

If farmers get only 25 percent of their water in a wet year, "what will [we] get in a dry year -- 10 percent?" he asked. "Basically, it is telling the farmers that if something doesn't change, they are going to go out of business," although those who have more money will be able to hang on a little longer than the rest.

Sarah Woolf, a spokesperson for Westlands Water District, said March 30 that getting the announcement from the bureau March 16 rather than the end of March "was helpful, but in all likelihood most crops won't change. We will still have high numbers of unfarmed acreage, and unemployment will probably not rebound much."

Many West Side communities have unemployment rates of 25-40 percent as a consequence of the water cuts last year.

"Twenty-five percent is a very small amount to farm anything with," Ms. Woolf said, "but we are grateful we got that."

A March 31 press release from the California Water Alliance stated that the organization wished to thank "the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation for using the most recent hydrologic reports, acknowledging the Northern California snowpack at 125 percent of the historic average and Northern California precipitation rate at 101 percent, to determine the increase in water allotments for West Side farmers from the previously announced 5 percent. However, the higher 25 percent allocation "is still below the minimum amount necessary for many farming business and farming communities to merely survive."

The low allocations even when precipitation is above normal "really points out" that regardless of the amount of precipitation, "getting total water allocation is a thing of the past," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League. "The West Side situation is still uncertain at best" and the situation is causing farmers on the valley's eastern side and elsewhere to be "nervous as to what may happen down the road."

There are actually "people that really believe that outsourcing food production is a viable alternative" to domestic food production, Mr. Bedwell said. "That is unfortunate, but that is going to be, potentially, the end result of all of this."