Veteran West Side grower Chris Hurd and others in his area with junior water rights are breathing a little easier following the April 17 announcement that the State Water Resources Control Board will keep the allocation of Central Valley Project water for holders of senior water rights and exchange contractors at 60 percent of their full allotment. Earlier, it was feared that these allocations might be reduced to just 10 percent or even to zero.
“That would have thrown out the window any chances of growers with senior water rights being able to provide some water for other growers this season,” Hurd says.
However, that still could happen, he points out, if the State Water Board decides such a curtailment is needed to meet its obligations for managing the amount of fresh water flowing into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Hurd has been growing almonds and vegetables on his Circle G Farms in Fresno County, about 25 miles southwest of Firebaugh, for 33 years. In addition to 800 acres of almonds, his operation includes 400 acres of canning tomatoes and young pistachio trees.
He and his neighbors are bearing the impact of four years of a natural drought as well as a legislative one brought about by political dithering over how to allocate dwindling supplies of water to satisfy both the needs of people and the regulatory requirements for protecting endangered and threatened species and other fish and wildlife resources.
This has left Hurd feeling adrift in a boat – that is, assuming, he had enough water to even float a boat.
“It’s like being without a paddle after the engine has conked out,” he says. “Our legislative bodies don’t have the votes needed to change existing laws concerning priorities of water use in the state. And, the agencies in charge of our water resources are not using discretion in how they operate their systems to provide more water for California users.”
Hurd says his allocation of Central Valley Project water for this year is zero, the same as last year. The very limited amount of groundwater available in his area is at risk of depletion. On top of that, no supplemental water is to be had at any price.
Last year, to help make up for some of the water shortfall, Hurd worked with other growers and irrigation districts to buy supplemental supplies, paying anywhere from about $1,000 to $1,500 an acre-foot and arranging water transfers. At the same time, Hurd fallowed all of his vegetable land, using the water saved from those fallowed fields for his almond and pistachio orchards. Also, he adopted a deficit irrigation program for his tree nut crops. In the case of his almonds, that meant reducing total water application from the normal consumptive water use of 37 acre-inches to 27 acre- inches.
“This enabled us to stay alive and even carry a little water into this year,” he says.
Following last year’s harvest, Hurd further reduced his water needs for this season by removing 120 acres of almond trees.
This year, Hurd has lined up purchases of minimal amounts of supplemental supplies of water for his almond orchards. He expects that, along with his fallowing ground, should enable his trees to make it through harvest. Just how productive they’ll be, remains to be seen, he notes. At the end of harvest, Hurd plans to take another 80 acres of almond trees out of production.
However, these actions may not be enough.
“Our irrigation district is very active in the market trying to find water for all our growers but keeps hitting roadblocks,” Hurd says. “Right now, there’s no water for sale at any price anywhere.
“Not only is my ranch in jeopardy, but so is the ability of California’s farmers to produce two-thirds of this nation’s food supply. The lack of adequate water to irrigate our crops is a hardship on families, farmers and communities and a terrible travesty. At the moment, there is no direction for achieving a sustainable future for the next generation who would like start farming in this state or for the current generation of farmers who want to continue farming.”