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
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."