Feds to Central Valley farmers: Expect no water this summer | Breaking News | FresnoBee.com

Feds to Central Valley farmers: Expect no water this summer

The federal Central Valley Project on Friday made an unprecedented irrigation forecast — zero water this summer for 3 million acres in the Central Valley at the heart of the state’s $44 billion farm industry.

Federal leaders blamed a record-setting drought for the potentially devastating cutback. San Joaquin Valley farm officials say the industry could lose hundreds of millions of dollars and jobless rates in some rural communities could soar above 50%.

Ron Jacobsma, general manager of Friant Water Authority, representing east Valley farm districts, said growers have been on the edge of their seats for months.

“These zero declarations had been widely anticipated, but they still come as a terrible shock,” he said.

The extreme dry winter has left the Sierra Nevada snowpack at 29% of average for late February. Major reservoirs in Northern California are less than half full. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, owner and operator of the CVP, has little water to offer.

“This low allocation is yet another indicator of the impacts the severe drought is having,” said bureau commissioner Michael L. Connor.

In Fresno County, the country’s biggest farm county with more than $6.5 billion annually in products, the announcement hits hard, said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Mayor Robert Silva in Mendota on Fresno County’s west side said he feared many social problems will follow if people are under the stress of being out of work.

“This is going to have a wide impact,” he said. “The crime rate will climb. You’ll see more spousal abuse in the home and truancy at schools.”

The 400-mile-long CVP is a system of dams and canals stretching from Redding to Bakersfield. The Valley’s west-side farmers buy water from Northern California, and east-siders buy from Millerton Lake.

Federal farm water contractors in the Sacramento Valley also have been given a zero allocation forecast.

If several storms hit California in the next two months, water could become available for delivery, federal leaders said.

But they also are balancing the needs of cities, ecosystems and water quality in places such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

City customers will receive 50% of the amount of water they use historically, officials said. Many urban areas buy federal water, including Fresno, Orange Cove, Coalinga, Huron, Avenal, Lindsay, Strathmore and Terra Bella. Other customers include Tracy and the Santa Clara Valley.

Wildlife refuges in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys will receive 40% of their allotments. It amounts to nearly 170,000 acre-feet of water.

One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply an average San Joaquin Valley family for 12 to 18 months.

West Valley landowners who decades ago traded their San Joaquin River water for Northern California water will receive 40% of their allotment — about 350,000 acre-feet. These farmers have a higher priority for water because of their historic river rights.

But most west-side contractors, such as 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, can’t expect any water. Westlands’ contract calls for more than 1.1 million acre-feet. Drought and environmental water needs have prevented the delivery of a full allotment in most years since the early 1990s.

Westlands growers are expected to fallow at least 100,000 acres and pump nearly 600,000 acre-feet of water from their wells.

Farmer Dan Errotabere, a member of the Westlands board, said he will run his wells aggressively to keep his crops alive, though he does not like to overpump the groundwater.

“We’re going to fallow acreage,” he said. “But we still will have to overpump. We don’t like to tax the water system out here like that. You wind up losing wells.”

On the Valley’s east side, 15,000 farmers are facing their first summer without San Joaquin River water since Friant Dam was constructed and formed Millerton Lake more than 60 years ago. Entire orchards may be lost in the east-side citrus region.

Gov. Jerry Brown last month declared a drought emergency, and state and federal agencies promised funding for suffering communities and farmers. President Barack Obama made his first visit to Fresno last week, bringing attention to the problem.

Andy Souza, chief executive officer of the Community Food Bank based in Malaga, said the government’s help will be needed. He said the Food Bank passed food to more than 14,000 people a month in 2009 when west-side agriculture got 20% of its water allotment. This year will be worse, he said.

“We learned a lot of lessons in 2009,” he said. “We have been preparing for this, and we think we might be providing subsistence for 20,000 to 25,000 people a month.”

The reporter can be reached at mgrossi or @markgrossi on Twitter. Staff writer Robert Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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Felix Seo