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California drought officially over, but farmers still come up short

by Rand Green | April 08, 2011

After two years of above-normal precipitation in California, and with snowpack in the Sierra Mountains from the 2010-11winter season at 165 percent of normal, making it the third wettest winter in more than 40 years, California Gov. Jerry Brown on March 30 declared the state's drought officially over.

Ag water
Water in an irrigation canal adjacent a fruit orchard in the San Joaquin Valley. Even with the wet winter and the drought officially over, valley farmers are getting only about two-thirds of their water allotment from state and federal water projects, while millions of acre-feet of water run off into the sea.


Snow at higher elevations has piled up to depths of more than 60 feet.

The drought, which was officially declared by California's previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in February 2009 after three years of below-normal precipitation has been widely blamed as the cause for severe cuts to water allotments for farmers in Central and Southern California.

Those cuts have been particularly painful on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where hundreds of thousands of acres of once-productive farmland have been forced to lie fallow, and the resulting loss of farm jobs has pushed unemployment levels to 20 percent.

One might expect that the wet winter would bring relief to farmers, and in fact an Associated Press story appearing March 30 in The Sierra Sun suggested as much: "When it melts, the snow will bring relief to hundreds of communities and many farms that provide fruits and vegetables to the nation."

But in actuality, State Water Project allotments for agriculture, while recently increased to 70 percent from the previous 60 percent level, leave farmers relying on state water still 30 percent short of their full allotment. Those relying on the Federal Water Project are in worse shape, with agricultural allotments having recently been increased to 65 percent from the previous 50 percent level.

News of the disappointingly small increase in the state allotments led Farmers Protecting the Valley, an organization devoted to trying to "ensure an adequate and affordable water supply" for the people of the San Joaquin Valley, to state in a March 20 e-mail newsletter, "It would appear that despite all the rain, the days of 100 percent allocation for farmers are gone. Reservoirs are so full, they're having to release water to make room for more. Nevertheless, the Department of Water Resources has announced State Water Project allocations of only 70 percent. Is 70 percent the new 100 percent? Is this the best we can get even after two good rain years and all the flooding?"

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers Association, said in an op-ed published April 3 in the Sacramento Bee, with precipitation to date at 150 percent of normal, "Our pleas to the federal government … continue." Every day, "more than 300,000 acre-feet of water is moving through the [Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta] and out to sea," and "over 4 million acre-feet has been taken away from farmers through environmental lawsuit settlements and legislation passed by Congress over the last two decades."

That is due partly to restrictions on pumping water out of the Delta, for the protection of fish in the Delta and partly because there is not enough water storage in the state to handle the runoff in a wet year.

"Even if the pumps in the Delta could run at 100 percent right now, there is nowhere to store this much water," Mr. Nassif said in the article. "California's outdated water system is straining to get floodwaters out to sea without causing major economic damage" from flooding.

"It always comes back to the throat of the pumping plant [in the Delta] and how much water they can get from Shasta," the major reservoir north of the Delta, "through the Delta to us," said Dave Jackson, president of Family Tree Farms in Reedley, CA, which grows stone fruit and other fruit crops in various San Joaquin Valley locations including the west side.

In an April 6 interview with The Produce News, Mr. Jackson said that he was told earlier in the spring by water authorities that "the best we would ever have again, if we had 100 percent [of normal precipitation], would be 60 percent [of full water allotment] … . We are now at 70 percent, which is better than anybody expected us to do."

The water cuts have not only forced land to lie fallow but also have pushed up costs for available water. "Water got up to $400 to $500 an acre-foot," Mr. Jackson said. "It takes three to four acre-feet of water to make a crop of stone fruit," so water costs per acre are anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000. At $2,000, "that knocks us out of the ability to produce crops and make a living at it," he said.