Water in short supply


by Kendall Wright / Patterson Irrigator

Apr 08, 2010

Within the fertile agricultural belly that composes California’s Central Valley, scattered pockets of land are the framework for the nearly 7,500 acres of Crows Landing farmer Earl Perez’s rich farmland.

The 79-year-old acknowledges that his family’s livelihood has been tested by tough times before. But, as he says, not even the past’s harshest weather compares with the present challenge of getting his share of the state’s most coveted — and highly regulated — resource: water.

The issue is a complex web and has put many farmers, fishers and environmentalists on opposing sides. Coming out of three years of less-than-average rainfall, environmentalists point to drought as the main cause for the water shortages, while farmers who rely on surface water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta say the pumping restrictions to protect an ecosystem and its endangered fish as they migrate into the Pacific Ocean is the primary problem.

“I’m not going to blame all of our problems on the fish or say we should just get rid of them, because as farmers, face it — we make our living being environmentalists,” Perez said. “I just think we still have our needs, too, and we need to find a compromise, quick.

“I know it will happen in time, but time is passing us by, and people’s lives are suffering because of it.”

Just in time for planting season, heavier rains, an improved Sierra snowpack and improved storage in the Shasta reservoir will give farmers a little more breathing room this year. Late last month, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would give those in the Central Valley who depend on federal water from the Delta-Mendota Canal 25 percent of their allotted contracts — a vast improvement over the initial 5 percent they had expected to see this year, and the 10 percent they received last year.

But while the improvement has been gratefully embraced, farmers on the West Side say they remain skeptical that the water increase is an indicator of a long-term solution.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve had to become less reliant on federal water allocation and more reliant on ourselves,” said John Escobar, who has farmed almonds and walnuts, among other crops, in Crows Landing for 25 years.

“I’m hoping this is a turn for the better, but unless our policymakers realize the disastrous effects of their decisions, it’s hard not to recognize the possibility of this whole valley drying up in the future.”

In a press release to farmers regarding the increased water allotment, Bill Harrison, Del Puerto Water District’s general manager, expressed a similar concern.

“California’s water crisis has entered a new phase,” Harrison wrote. “It is now clear that no matter how much water exists north of the Delta, restrictions on the movement of that water through the Delta to export to those areas served by the Central Valley Project and California’s State Water Project will cause water shortages and economic hardship for the foreseeable future.”

This year, with prices for additional resources above the normal water allotment inching up near $50 and $60 per acre-foot, local farmers like Perez and Escobar say they will continue to leave many fields fallow and drill new wells, hoping groundwater can make up the difference in what they need to water their crops.

“I love what I do, and I don’t want to give it up, but if this scarcity continues, there are going to be some hard decisions to make about this land,” Perez said. “God only knows what will happen in the future.”