California drought hits farmers hardest

Without help from the heavens, Joe Del Bosque figures that 2014 will be the last year before many family farmers in California’s vast San Joaquin Valley begin to go bankrupt.

And 2014 is going to be bad. Really bad. Del Bosque has 2,000 acres scattered across several farms west of Fresno, near Firebaugh. He will leave 500 to 700 acres unplanted because there is no water for his crops.

That’s about 650,000 boxes of cantaloupe, regular and organic, he won’t be harvesting come July — about $3 million worth of produce, he estimated. It’s a few hundred workers, most of them migrants, he won’t be hiring. It’s money that won’t be spent in grocery and hardware stores in small towns across the region that produces half of the country’s homegrown fruits and vegetables. It’s a lot of schools with empty seats as farm workers looking for jobs move on with their families.

“Everybody will be hurt,” Del Bosque said. “When farmers idle land, the people who have small businesses in small communities . . . they’ll all suffer. It’s a huge ripple effect through the whole valley.”

California is entering its third year of drought, a recurring nightmare for those old enough to remember the prolonged dry period of 1987 to 1991 and the disaster of 1976 and 1977, the previous record-setting drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL)

Now, 2013 is the driest year on record in California. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) officially declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17, asking the state’s 38 million people to voluntarily cut their water use by 20 percent. Two weeks later, with the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada at 12 percent of normal, the State Water Project announced for the first time in its 54-year history that it would deliver no water to agencies that serve 25 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. They would have to get by with water from other sources, such as the Colorado River, groundwater and the little left in their reservoirs.

Del Bosque also expects a zero allocation from the federal Central Valley Project, which delivers water to farmers through 500 miles of canals. By some estimates, half a million acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland will lie fallow during the upcoming growing season.

According to Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, two-thirds of California is in “extreme” drought conditions and 10 percent is suffering an “exceptional” drought. The latter is a once-in-50-years event. Fifteen Western states are experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions.

The Republican-controlled U.S. House passed a bill to help the region last week, but the White House threatened to veto it. Democrats say it would cut back environmental protections. President Obama is scheduled to visit Fresno on Friday to promote federal efforts to help farmers and others.

Some help came over the weekend as a heavy storm hit Northern California, dropping as much as three feet of snow in the Sierras, whose runoff is critical to the water supply. Forecasters hoped that a high-pressure ridge in the atmosphere that has been blocking the normal flow of precipitation might be breaking up, but it was too early to tell, and the state needs much more water than any single storm can supply.

But, for the 65-year-old Del Bosque, a father of six daughters who runs his business with his extended family, it may be too late. He is already making a Sophie’s choice among his crops, devoting the little water he has to his almond and cherry trees. Fallow land can be planted in coming years, but he can’t afford to let those trees die.

A California company is recalling 8.7 lbs of beef parts because it used "diseases and unsound animals" and lacked proper federal inspections, says the USDA. (Reuters)

Del Bosque will tap some water he bought last year and banked in the San Luis Reservoir, and will use well water available to one of his farms. But well water is salty, less than ideal for his crops. He can try to buy water, which is selling for at least five times the normal price, but no one has any to spare anyway. Which is why 2015 looks like a make-or-break year to Del Bosque, unless it begins to rain.

“There will be no water to carry into next year,” he said. “Everyone is using every drop they’ve got, and there’s no water to be bought anywhere.”

In cities, inconvenience

Water your lawn more than once a week, or on the wrong day or at the wrong time in Sacramento and you risk a fine that for repeat offenders can reach $1,000 per violation. Almost 40 city employees have been trained to look for scofflaws. The number of people anonymously reporting their neighbors has soared from 50 in January 2013 to 1,000 last month.

“Right now it’s Saturday or Sunday, customer’s choice,” said Jessica Hess, a city spokeswoman. As long as the customer waters before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m. The city has handed out 83 warning notices and one $50 fine for a second offense since enforcement began Jan. 1.

In cities such as the state capital, the drought means inconvenience, at least when compared with the life-altering decisions faced by farmers only a couple of hundred miles away.

The average family of four in a single-family home in Sacramento uses 417 gallons of water a day, 65 percent of it outdoors. Half the homes don’t even have water meters.

“It’s small lifestyle changes that people are being asked to take into consideration,” Hess said. Residents also have been asked to run full loads in their washing machines. Garden hoses must have automatic shut-off nozzles. Not far away, in Santa Cruz, restaurants may serve water only upon request and swimming pools cannot be drained and refilled.

On the Monterey Peninsula, where only 105,000 people live, in places such as Carmel and Monterey, water comes from the Carmel River and groundwater, not the giant state water system. The average person consumes 60 gallons a day, which Dave Stoldt, general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, said is the lowest in the state.

But with 13 miles of the river virtually dry, officials spent much of last summer rescuing steelhead salmon and moving them to other parts of the river, he said. The fish should be heading to the ocean about now but can’t get there, he said.

On the peninsula, which accommodates 8 million visitors annually, the fear is what further water shortages could mean for the tourist industry. Under strict water rationing, there could be as little as 35 gallons a day per resident, enough to guarantee health and safety, said Stephanie Locke-Pintar, the district’s water demand manager, but with little left over for businesses such as hotels and resorts.

For now, the district doesn’t anticipate even a 15 percent voluntary cutback until May 1, even if there is no more rain, Stoldt said.

Better prepared in the south

With 19 million people and little water of its own, Southern California could be the part of the state most vulnerable to water shortages. But Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the giant Metropolitan Water District, which wholesales water to the six counties of that megalopolis, said there is enough to last the year, even without more rain.

After the area was saved from strict water rationing in 1991 by the “March miracle” — a month of downpours that wiped away a four-year drought — the water district embarked on a nearly two-decade program to build water storage and promote conservation, Kightlinger said.

It gradually doubled rates, building new reservoirs and a high-speed feeder system, and promoted conservation measures. Through incentives and code changes, 90 percent of residents from Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, to the San Diego border now have 2.2-gallon toilets and low-flow shower heads, he estimated. Annual demand is about equal to what it was more than 20 years ago, when the region was home to 14 million people.

The area also dramatically increased its use of recycled and reclaimed water for irrigation. It has enough water stored in reservoirs to go the whole year without any cutbacks, he said.

Still, the district is promoting Brown’s 20 percent voluntary cutback and wants to begin incentives for one-gallon toilets, Kightlinger said.

“It’s just that we’re more prepared for it,” he said. “We’ve been hammered by some droughts, and people down here understand they’re living in a pretty dry area.”

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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