West Side water situation updated

This past June, Tree Nut Farm Press described the challenges San Joaquin Valley grower Chris Hurd, faced in providing water for his West Side almond orchards.

The Central Valley Project water allocation to the Firebaugh, Calif., grower had been cut to just two-tenths of an acre foot — just 10 percent of his full annual allotment, and nowhere near the 3.5-acre feet needed to produce a crop.

“The water situation is overshadowing every other production concern,” he said at the time.

By harvest, nothing had changed.

“The whole long-term almond deal on the West Side remains questionable because of the water shortage,” Hurd says. “Some guys are paying as much $1,000 to $1,500 an acre to irrigate their almonds. A lot of them won’t make it. Over the past three years, my water costs have increased 1,000 percent. We’re getting no political leadership to solve what I call a legislative drought.”

Turning off the Delta pumps that supply water to the West Side won’t necessarily solve the Delta smelt problem, contends Hurd.

“Farmers in the Delta are taking water from the Sacramento River without fish screens (to prevent killing the smelt),” he says. “Millions of gallons of ammonia-laced water from water treatment plants are being dumped into the river and killing fish. Also, invasive species, like the white bass, are eating the smelt.”

Although fish and wildlife officials are required by law to consider these factors, they aren’t, Hurd contends. “Everyone is pointing fingers at us growers, and we’re taking the full brunt of the blame for causing the Delta smelt problems. But no one seems to be talking about these other issues.”

Hurd, paid $300 to $500 per acre-foot to buy some supplemental water from other farmers this year. That compares to the $127 per acre-foot he paid for what little Bureau of Reclamation water he received.

To help make up part of the shortfall, he fallowed open ground, which normally produces tomatoes, melons, garlic and onions, and diverted water from those fields to his almond orchards.

Also, during May, June and July Hurd pumped water from farmland he owns elsewhere in the Valley into local irrigation system ditches. In return, he was allowed to withdraw that same amount of water from the CVP project, which these districts were entitled to, for his West Side orchards.

“But that’s not a stable long-term supply of water,” Hurd explains. “The districts allow us to participate in this program as a favor. Also, you can pump no more than 3 acre-feet of water a year into these districts and you can only do it two out of every three years.”

Pumping water from the aquifer beneath the West Side isn’t an option, either, he explains, because it is brackish and not good for almond trees.

Nevertheless, Hurd’s almond trees have produced a fairly sizeable crop. In addition to Nonpareil, they include Butte, Carmel, Monterey, Padre and Wood Colony.

“The Nonpareils are off about 10 percent to 20 percent, depending on the field,” he says. “We had more frost damage in March than we first thought. Yields of the other varieties are about average.”

Even though 2009 was not a disaster, certaintly future water supplies remain a unrelenting concern for Hurd. “All of us on the West Side are trying to figure out our next step. I don’t know how much longer our production mathematics can continue like it has been. Bankers may run out of patience pretty soon. It’s pretty hard to justify investing in buying land or drilling wells when future surface water supplies are so questionable. There will be some hard lessons learned and some train wrecks before it’s all over.”

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