California Farmers Plan For Extremely Dry Year

• By Christine Souza •

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the Ag Alert April 7, 2021, issue. To read the article in its entirety, go to

dry year in california
Tulare County farmer Tom Barcellos, right, directs land-leveling operations with equipment operators Danny Green, center, and Donnie Laxson. The acreage will be fallowed this summer due to lack of water — photo by Cecilia Parsons

With all signs pointing to a critically dry year in California, farmers are trying to add flexibility to help them make it through the season.

Tulare County farmer and dairy operator Tom Barcellos says he expects to receive “almost nothing” in 2021 when it comes to water supply.

“This year, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get much out of the Tule River; there’s just basically no water coming,” he says. “We’ve got more acres than we’ve got water, so naturally we’re going to have to fallow some and concentrate on what we can irrigate.”

Like other farmers facing limited water supplies, Barcellos says he is concerned about high prices for purchasing supplemental water.

“The real question is: Is there real water available to buy?” he says.

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Central Valley Project contractors in the western San Joaquin Valley, who had received only a 5% initial allocation, saw the allocation suspended late in March.

Fresno County-based Woolf Farming buys water from the Westlands Water District, which is supplied through the CVP. Daniel Hartwig, the farm’s resource manager, says the delayed 5% allocation “means a lot of uncertainty and people don’t know how to plan, and it means a lot of growers are having to go out into the market to try and buy water, but there’s very little available.”

Woolf Farming began planting tomato transplants last week. Hartwig says the farm had to order the plants back in December, to be sure they’d be available.

“Even if we get that 5% (allocation), that’s like 2 inches of water per acre, so unfortunately, we’re going to have to lean a little bit on our groundwater this year,” he says.

Cotton will be the farm’s “flex crop,” Hartwig says, meaning the farm will adjust cotton plantings based on the amount of water available.

Farmers throughout water-short areas also face restrictions on groundwater, as local agencies prepare to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA.

Along with the suspension of certain CVP deliveries, the State Water Project reduced its allocation to 5%, down from an initial 10%. The State Water Resources Control Board sent early warning notices to some 40,000 water rights holders, urging them to plan for potential shortages by reducing water use and adopting conservation measures.

Water Infrastructure

Amid the drought hitting California and other Western states, a coalition of more than 200 agricultural and water organizations says it urges the federal government to further bolster investment in the nation’s aging water facilities.

In response to an infrastructure program recently unveiled by President Joe Biden, the coalition — which includes the California Farm Bureau — says it looks forward to working with the administration and Congress on the larger need for Western water infrastructure. This includes aboveground and underground water storage and conveyance facilities, along with federal financial mechanisms for such water projects.

“To ensure that food can continue to be safely and affordably produced in the West and that rural communities continue to have access to the water critical to their economies, it is important that water supply investment be included as a necessary component of a national infrastructure package,” says California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson.

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. The California Farm Bureau Federation provided this article.

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