Citrus orchard destroyed

An orange grove near Porterville, Calif. last year was removed after irrigation water was cut to California farmers. Other permanent crops met a similar fate.

California drought: State moves into fourth dry year

Hundreds of square miles of farmland fallowed in California in 2014 Bureau of Reclamation claims not enough water available in fourth year of drought "Shasta-critical" year means rice fields and wildlife habitat will be impacted

The Feb. 27 announcement of zero federal water to California farmers is another crushing blow to a state trying to gain economic traction and slow the bleeding of underground aquifers.

For a second consecutive year, the Bureau of Reclamation will allocate zero water to California farmers via the Central Valley Project (CVP). The zero allocation applies to all agricultural water users with federal contracts in California.

In making its decision, the Bureau of Reclamation also declared a “Shasta-critical” year, meaning water contractors north of the Delta will not have irrigation water as the agency determines quantities to hold back for senior water rights holders and wildlife refuges in the Central Valley.

For northern California rice growers, this “Shasta-critical” designation can signal less available water and forced fallowing of rice land, which doubles as habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife along the Pacific Flyway.

Rice plantings last year were reduced by about 25 percent, said Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission.

Farmers grow increasingly frustrated over decisions like this because data shows there was ample water in 2014 to supply minimal deliveries to growers based on previous dry years with similar or less water in the federal water system.

Using a chart labeled “doing less with more,” Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, illustrates this by showing that in 1992 nearly one million fewer acre feet of water was available in lakes Folsom and Shasta than there is today. That year agricultural contractors received 25 percent of their federal allotment.

The short answer to the discrepancy can be seen in actions taken under the federal Endangered Species Act and the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which over the years have throttled back agricultural access to water long considered available to California farmers.

Pumping restrictions

This was exacerbated in recent years with pumping restrictions from the California Delta region into San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos to protect fish species in the Delta. San Luis Reservoir was built in the 1960s to stabilize water deliveries south of the Delta and help provide irrigation water to millions of acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.

According to Wade, from Dec. 15, 2014 through Jan. 26 of this year, the impacts of regulatory constrictions on Delta pumping meant that over 315,000 acre feet of water that could have been stored in San Luis Reservoir instead was allowed to flow out to sea.

By comparison the 1992 federal surface water allocation to farmers was about 500,000 acre feet.

“This is not the drought causing this problem,” Wade said. “It’s regulators doing this.”

Wade has consistently challenged the state’s success at protecting fish as environmental regulations that went into effect decades ago to protect endangered fish do not seem to be working.

Water shortages to districts like Westlands Water District, which covers 614,000 acres of land in Fresno and Kings Counties, has severely cut back the acreage of crops like processing tomatoes, melons, garlic, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage and cotton.

It has also hurt the 100,000-plus acres of permanent crops grown in America’s largest agricultural water district.

Gayle Holman, spokesperson for Westlands Water District, said farmers there fallowed 220,000 acres – over 340 square miles – of farmland due to the Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to curb agricultural water deliveries in California.

“Now we’re looking at another zero allocation and anticipate that last year’s figure of 220,000 acres may go even higher,” Holman said.

Westlands has federal contracts to provide water to 700 family-owned farms averaging 875 acres in size that historically have produced more than 60 different commodities.

For senior water rights holders like Los Banos farmer Canon Michael, this year’s news though expected still stings.

“This is just horrible behavior on their part,” said Michael, who farms several thousand acres in the central part of the San Joaquin Valley.

Last year’s water shortage forced Michael to fallow about 1,000 acres of prime land that could have grown melons and other annual crops.

Michael is making cropping decisions for 2015 and expects to fallow at least what was left idle last year, though that number could grow as water availability is arguably worse than last year.

He does not expect to receive the minimum 75 percent water allocation the federal government is mandated to provide him under terms of the water contract he has with them.

Michael says he will likely focus on planting processing tomatoes and extra-long staple cotton. California tomato canneries say they want 15 million tons for their operations while ELS cotton prices have been positive, he said.

Along with the thousand acres left idle last year, Michael cut irrigation schedules to his alfalfa crop, leaving him with five cuttings instead of his typical seven.

Growers left dry

According to Michael, a decision earlier this year by State Water Board Executive Director Thomas Howard to stop pumping pulse flows from storm runoff into San Luis Reservoir killed any opportunity for the state to bank water and allocates it to farms.

“Any pumping during these storms would have helped,” Michael said.

Howard’s decision seems to fly in the face of the emergency drought declaration California Gov. Jerry Brown, Jr. signed last year that ordered state agencies to streamline water transfers and relax regulatory restrictions on Delta pumping into San Luis Reservoir.

California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen said Howard’s decision to halt pumping did not need to take place when it did and arguably should have been made by the full board, though the water board did grant Howard the authority to make such a decision if necessary.

For the Friant Water Authority (FWA) which moves water along the San Joaquin Valley’s east side from Chowchilla to Bakersfield via the Friant-Kern Canal, the water they consistently rely upon has likewise dried up as the Bureau of Reclamation has taken water otherwise earmarked for FWA and gives it to senior water rights holders elsewhere in the Valley.

Friant saw it’s first-ever zero allocation in 2014 and now faces a back-to-back allotment of no water.

According to FWA General Manager Ron Jacobsma, the district is in worse shape this year since carry-over water is no longer available and groundwater resources are severely stressed.

Last year, more than 200,000 acre feet of Friant water from Millerton Lake near Fresno was channeled down the San Joaquin River to the Mendota Pool to meet federal obligations with exchange contractors. These are the senior-rights holders that includes Michael and others in his area.

This move drained Millerton to less than 200,000 acre feet of storage today. Early 2015 snow surveys reveal very little snowpack in the watershed that feeds Millerton, meaning the lake will suffer further as the year progresses.  Its capacity is 520,000 acre feet.

Water prices could escalate

Jacobsma predicts prices for farmers able to find water could eclipse last year’s prices, which according to reports exceeded $3,000 per acre foot to some growers.

Growers of permanent crops, including tree nuts and citrus, will be particularly hard hit by this second year of zero allocation.

Almond and pistachio growers saw lighter-than-expected harvests in part due to lack of water. Lower chilling hours were also thought to play a role in the shorter crops.

Citrus growers too. In California, many of these groves are served by FWA and expect considerably worse conditions in 2015 as some have no groundwater.

Nelsen estimates that about 10,000 acres of California citrus was impacted by the zero allocation with upwards of 50,000 acres made vulnerable by short groundwater supplies.

In a statement released by CCM, Nelsen said, "Since 1992, over seven million acre feet of water has been transferred away from landowners in the southern San Joaquin Valley with no accountability as to the environmental successes achieved."

Nelsen continued, "Since 1992, those sourcing water from the Friant system have been paying additional dollars per acre foot for environmental enhancements with no accountability. The State of California has more than 320 species listed as endangered and yet all the efforts have not led to one species being removed from the Endangered Species Act list.”

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During last year’s report to county supervisors on the state of Fresno County agriculture, county Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright said the 2013 crop report revealed only a partial impact to county Ag values as the drought and water allocations primarily impacted growers on the western half of the county.

For the first time in modern history, Fresno County’s Ag value fell two years in a row from its record high in 2011. Due to water constraints, Wright expects his total Ag value – which typically has been the highest in the nation – to fall once again when 2014 numbers are compiled.

“We have to be the only state in the nation and the only nation on earth establishing policies that destroys the production of food,” said Nelsen.

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