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California Farmers To Lose Primary Water Supply

February 22, 2009

California’s primary source of irrigation water is projected to go dry in 2009 due to drought, idling more than 60,000 workers and up to 1 million acres of farmland, federal officials said Friday.

California water officials declared a zero allocation policy for farmers who purchase water from the federally managed Central Valley Project (CVP), and repeated their plans to reduce amounts supplied from a separate state-run water system to 15 percent of normal.

The cutbacks are an enormous setback to thousands of Central Valley farmers, and will likely raise prices on a wide variety of crops. California is the nation’s No. 1 farm state in terms of the value of the crops produced, which stands at more than $36 billion a year.

The Central Valley, a fertile but arid region spanning roughly 500 miles from Bakersfield to Redding, produces over half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States and is California’s agricultural heartland.

The main source of water for the valley’s farms and ranches is the federally built and managed CVP, a large network of dams, pumping stations and canals that collects runoff from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range and delivers it to regional irrigation districts.

One recent forecast compiled economists at the University of California projected 60,000 to 80,000 job losses and over $2 billion in lost income from a scenario such as the one announced Friday.

The recession has already hit California particularly hard, with the state’s unemployment rate already at more than 9 percent, far above the national average.

Richard Howitt, who co-authored the study, expects roughly 850,000 acres of land would be left dry and uncultivated, with another 2 million acres growing less food than in average years.  Howitt’s analysis assumes that farmers will make greater use of groundwater to mitigate reductions from the state and federal government.

Officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the CVP, estimated that 1 million acres, or about one-third of the land irrigated by the system, would be put out of production as a result of the cutbacks.

Lynnette Wirth, a spokeswoman for the agency, told Reuters the situation was “grim”.

“It doesn’t get any worse than zero,” said California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar, in a statement.
“Our water reliability has hit rock bottom.”

Mosebar called on California authorities to do everything possible to alleviate the situation, including ensuring that short-term water sales and transfers between farmers can continue unimpeded.

The Westlands Water District, the CVP’s largest and nation’s largest overall, includes just over 700 farmers on 600,000 acres of land, two-thirds of which will be made inactive by the water supply cutoff, said Sarah Woolf, a spokesman for the district.

Woolf said layoffs are already underway in anticipation of the cutbacks. Some farmers will try to get by with unused water supplies from last year as well as local groundwater.

Allocations might be increased later this year to 10 percent of contracted amounts, federal officials say, but only if a unexpectedly large amount of rain and snow in the area.

The last time the CVP declared a zero supply was in 1992, Wirth said. However, farmers ultimately received 25 percent of their typical allotment after conditions improved that year.

Despite a series of recent winter storms, California is in the third year of a drought that is on target to be the state’s worst ever.  The Sierra snowpack remains far below normal, and reservoirs fed by the runoff are significantly depleted.

Making matters worse are federal court restrictions on water that can be brought in from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California.  The Delta provides much of the state’s irrigation and drinking supplies, but restrictions were put in place to protect endangered fish species.

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