Water shortage very costly

Reflecting the extremely tight supplies of surface irrigation water in the San Joaquin Valley’s West Side, the total water bill for Friedenbach/Turmon Farms, Kerman, Calif., last year shot up $800,000 over 2007.

“That’s an environmental tax on us, plain and simple,” says Mark Turmon, the farm’s managing partner.

As he sees it, that’s just one of the costs he and other almond growers are paying as a result of the federal Endangered Species Act, which has caused the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to severely limit allocations of irrigation water to help protect the delta smelt and winter runs of Chinook salmon. “Our hands are tied by these legal restrictions,” he says.

Part of his $800,000 extra water expense includes the $400 per acre-foot he paid for water to carry over for his 2009 crops. It doesn’t include the $600,000 he spent this winter to drill a 1,500-foot well to supplement surface water needs.

Turmon Farms’ 1,530 acres of producing almonds includes mostly Nonpareil, along with Monterey and Carmel varieties. Currently, the trees are in good condition, he reports. However, in contrast to last year’s much-better-than-normal nut set, this year’s set is below-average.

“That may have been caused by the slight frost we had in March, or maybe the trees didn’t bounce back from last year’s huge crop,” he says. In 2008, for example, his Montereys produced more than 4,000 pounds per acre.

Because of his water concerns, Turmon hasn’t planted any new almond fields since 2006, when he put in 150 acres. Profits from his organic processing tomatoes have been much more attractive.

Nevertheless, short water supplies have forced him to fallow 400 acres of ground where he would otherwise have planted tomatoes this year in orderto provide enough water for his almond crop. If the water shortage continues, he may leave 1,000 acres of his tomato and barley land open next year.

“I stay awake at night a lot,” Turmon says. “Right now, the best we can do is try to break even and hang on until California’s water infrastructure is improved. If that doesn’t happen, we go out of business.”

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