Water issues frustrating season start

Any hopes that Fred Starrh has for his almond crop this year are clouded by the continuing drought and severe water restrictions. Fred, his sons, Fred II and Larry, and son-in-law Jay Kroker, are partners in Starrh Farms, their 9,000-acre operation near Shafter, Calif. Their tree nut orchards include 4,000 acres of almonds and 500 acres of pistachios.

“Right now it looks like it will be a very good crop,” Fred says. “However, because of a very real water shortage all of us on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley have our backs against the wall.”

Their allocations of water have dropped significantly over the last three years. In 2007, he reports, the state water project water allocation of 1 million acre-feet for Kern county growers was cut 35 percent. Last year, it was lowered by 65 percent, followed by an 85 percent reduction this year. “That’s a total of 1.8 million acre-feet that’s not available to supplement water coming out of the ground,” Fred says. “We can’t keep going on like that.”

At the same time, water costs have risen from $100 per acre-foot in 2006 when growers received their full allotment, to this year’s price of $700 per acre-foot. “When you consider the 3.5 to 4 acre-feet of water we need to grow almonds, you can see what that does to our overall production costs.”

The economics prevent Starrh Farms from planting row crops. They wouldn’t pay for the water, Fred says. That’s why the farm has idled 2,000 acres this year.

To help make up some of the shortfall in water for his tree nuts, Starrh Farms has been tapping into his district-owned water bank. When the bank was full, growers in his area were pumping from a depth of about 100 feet, Starrh notes. Now, they’ve lowered pumps to 200 to 300 feet and many are drilling new wells.

“In our orchards, we’re cutting back on water for our almonds as much as we can without risking a future drop in production,” Fred says. “Instead of putting on more water early in the season, we’ll be holding it back and feeding it to the almonds as we go along, trying to make it through the season. But, if we have another dry year, there will be little water left in the bank. The banking project was always meant to be a supplement to get us through a year or two of very dry conditions. Now we’re into our third year.

“It’s so frustrating. We’re not facing just dry weather but a regulatory drought that’s been forced on us by the Endangered Species Act, which requires putting fish before people. We need to convince legislators to change environmental protection laws to allow economic impacts to be considered when implementing these laws. The key to saving California’s agriculture is to put some rationality into the Endangered Species Act. Otherwise, we’re doomed to failure.”

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