Low Water Supplies Leave Farmers In A Bind

By Christine Souza —

Joel Allen California cotton farmerReservoirs are at or above average storage levels, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack is improved by storms in March and early April. However, farmers await word from federal and state water agencies about whether water allocations may improve.

During a winter in which the snowpack reached only about half of average levels, both the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project told most of their agricultural customers in January to expect 20 percent water allocations this year.

Conditions improved during March and early April, and water managers recently increased allocations for CVP water users south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to 40 percent. The State Water Project increased allocations for state water contractors to 30 percent.

David Murillo, director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region that operates the CVP, says federal fisheries agencies remain concerned about storing enough cold water in Lake Shasta to meet the needs of endangered fish.

‘Not A Good Situation’

Meanwhile, Joel Allen, a CVP grower who farms row and field crops in the Westlands Water District west of Firebaugh, says the low allocation and lack of certainty from year to year “is a far cry from where we need to be.”

Though he and other growers can carry over a percentage of water in their accounts from last year, Allen says that won’t be enough. He believes he will have to purchase expensive water on the open market to supplement whatever supply he receives.

“I’ve been dealing with this for 20 years and it’s to the point where I’m about ready to raise the white flag, but we’re fighters,” Allen says.

Water Affects Financing

Allen, who grows grains, cotton, cantaloupes and dryland crops, says one of his biggest challenges this year was securing financing.

“In 2014, the water allocation was 0 percent; in 2015, 0 percent; and in 2016, 5 percent,” he says. “I think banks pulled the reins in and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make sure these guys have a more reliable source of water.’”

Some of his neighbors have put in deep water wells, but Allen says, “I haven’t done that yet, because I’ve been on a financial limb, and I don’t want to continue breaking that branch.”

Jim Jones, who farms near Orland, says the initial 20 percent allocation water contractors received puts growers in a “holding pattern,” limiting them from moving forward with planting and settling contracts with processors.

Jones also works at Tri Counties Bank, handling agricultural accounts, and says given the current water situation, he must ask growers interested in loans about their budgets, including water source, allocation and access to surface water. He says an increase in the CVP allocation would be “a welcome relief and would ease stress, and likely add more water orders for our water district and lower the cost of our water.”

A Balancing Act

In Kern County, Jason Giannelli, general farm manager at his family farm in Bakersfield, purchases water from two districts: one that receives water from the State Water Project and another with a mix of state and CVP supplies.

“Everything is up in the air, but we’ve got to continue with our plan of planting our crops,” Giannelli says. “We’re able to make it work because we do have wells that supplement, but we’re also stretched thin because our water schedule is going to have to be just right on time.”

A grower of permanent, row and field crops, he says he expects to fallow about 300 acres that would have been planted to cotton and corn.

A representative of the State Water Project, California Department of Water Resources Chief Deputy Director Cindy Messer, told the state agriculture board meeting that “we do anticipate that our allocation numbers will go up.”

CVP water supply updates are posted at www.usbr.gov/mp/cvp-water/index.html.

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert — the California Farm Bureau Federation’s weekly newspaper.

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