Within the first full week of August, Borba Farms, on the West Side near Huron, Calif., had started the almond harvest about 10 days earlier than usual, shaking several blocks of Nonpareils, including some three-year-old trees being harvested for the first time.
Owner Mark Borba planned to ship his first loads to the huller the second week of the month. He was cautiously optimistic about how his crop would shell out.
Yield prospects for fields here that have received enough water this season, whether from surface supplies, wells or a combination of both sources, look promising, Borba notes. His blocks are among those.
It’s a different picture where trees have received less-than-adequate water this season.
Borba describes early harvest results for one his West Side neighbors, whose previous almond yields have easily topped the 3,500 “net-meat”) pounds per-acre level.
“Last year, he shipped to the huller 23 sets of trailer loads from the first Nonpareil field he harvested,” Borba says “This year he shipped just 11 sets from that field.
“Normally, growers here provide from 42 to 46 inches of water to their almond trees each season. This year, my neighbor was able to put on less than 24 inches. In fact, he’ll be surprised if another of his fields, which looked to be stressed for water for most of the season, will yield as well as that first one.”
Almond varieties – Aldrich, Monterey, Fritz, Wood Colony, Butte, Padre and Nonpareil – account for about 30 percent of Borba Farms’ 9,000 acres. The rest are planted to tomatoes, garlic, cantaloupe, lettuce, wheat and Pima cotton. Every acre is drip irrigated. “Like every other West Side grower we’ve struggled this year to get the water we need,” Borba says.
His fields are in the Westlands Water District, where in February water allocations announced by the Bureau of Reclamation were set at zero percent for the 2014-15 water year. Growers were allowed to apply for possible supplemental water. However, it was announced recently this water, about 0.2 acre-feet per acre paid for earlier in the season, may not be available until late this fall, if at all.
Borba purchased some additional water from a private source, paying $800 per acre-foot for it. Also, he was able to carry over water in San Luis Reservoir from his 2013 Central Valley Project allocation to supplement his main water supply this year – groundwater.
How can he justify $800-per-acre-foot water? “We needed that surface water for our almonds as well as garlic, tomatoes, melons and lettuce that we had committed to growing before the start of this season,” Borba replies. “It’s not economic. But, when the zero-percent allocation was announced, we were in the middle of the crop season with contracted commitments, and you just can’t stop!”
Meanwhile, growers in the area have measured drops of 150 to 200 feet in the pumping level of wells this year. With water-short growers continuing to drill new wells and lower existing pumps, water levels are expected to fall even farther. “The over-draft of water in this District is significant, some estimates approaching over 450,000 acre feet this year.” he says.
By planning for his water use and buying the extra water he needed, Borba has been able to get his crops through this season. However, by the end of this year he’ll have emptied his surface water account. “Unless our water table gets recharged this winter, I’m not sure this area makes it through another summer,” he says. “A number of my grower friends say the coming year is the biggest challenge yet. It’s going to be a do or die year for many growers.
Like others around him, Borba will likely commit what water he has to his permanent crops. In this area, that includes almonds, pistachios and grapes. “Everything else is on the bubble,” Borba adds.
He won’t know his allocation of surface water for 2015 until next March. However, he must make commitments to produce some annual crops well before then. For example, he’ll have to decide this month if he’ll be growing garlic, which is planted in September for harvest next July. He plants durum wheat in November and December, and tomatoes from February thru April.
“If I commit to growing any of those crop, I’ll be doing it blind, without knowing what my water allocation will be for next year,” he says. “So, I’m planning to conservatively assume we’ll have no remaining District water to carry into next year, little supplemental water available for purchase in 2015, and, absent a huge El Nino, likely no District water allocation once again. That reduces our likely supply to only groundwater.”