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Water issues are serious concern for tree fruit industry if drought lasts another year

“It’s all about water right now,” said Barry Bedlow, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League in Fresno, CA, when asked about the major issues currently facing the industry.

In reality, for 2014 the tree fruit industry in California is better off than many with regard to water, because most growers have enough to get them through the current season. But if California’s three-year drought continues another year and some regulatory relief is not found, the impact on all of California agriculture, including the tree fruit industry, could be severe.

Last year, and for several years prior, immigration reform and the need to assure an adequate and reliable work force to get crops harvested and packed took top priority for the league. But the deepening drought and the lack of regulatory flexibility has pushed water concerns to the top.

11-Summerfruit-CGTFL-Barry-Barry BedwellThere will be “impacts due to the shortage of water” this year, Bedlow said, but they won’t be felt “in the same way with some of these permanent crops like tree fruit and table grapes” on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley as in some other regions and some other agricultural sectors of the state, because “the overwhelming majority do have pumps and wells that they will be using this year,” he said.

However, ground water basins are being overdrawn with continued pumping, and unless they are replenished by abundant rainfall or an increase in surface water allocations to farmers to take pressure off of reliance on wells, “the amount of water is going to be less in all of these basins,” he said.

As water tables drop, more wells go dry and new ones must be drilled deeper to reach water, but well drilling companies now have waiting lists longer than a year. Moreover, new wells are only a temporary solution if water levels continue to drop.

While “we don’t expect any major disruptions” for the current season, the future prospects remain cloudy, Bedwell said. “From the perspective of our members, particularly the stone fruit guys as well as the table grape guys, I think they are looking forward to the year. But underlying all of this is concerns over what will happen if the drought continues.”

There are “three main areas of concern” the league is addressing with regard to water, Bedwell said. “Number one is at the federal level: How can we help the Senate get a bill produced that can be reconciled with the house version of water reform that has already been passed? This is ironic, because when it comes to immigration reform, we have been pushing the House to do something that can be reconciled with the Senate version. On water, you just flip that around.”

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act (HR3964), which was passed by the House, proposes modifications to federal legislation restricting the availability of water to farms and cities of Central and Southern California. There is no expectation that the Senate would pass a bill that goes that far, but “we need greater flexibility in being able to deal with all of the environmental regulations and the amount of water that can be moved” from Northern to Central California “without harming the delta,” Bedlow said. “No one is talking about changing the Endangered Species Act per se, but we have to look at the interpretations to maximize flexibility,” so that when there are increased flows, “we can capture as much as possible of some of those flows and be able to move water south.”

At the state level, the league’s focus is on getting a water bond passed in November that “addresses the need for additional storage,” so that in wet years, the surplus can be stored for use in dry years, Bedlow said.

The third area of concern is the push for ground water management. While that needs to be addressed, “let’s not do it in such a way that we wind up hurting ourselves in the future,” he said.