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Drought hits California farmers hard

Some wonder if they’ll survive without rain, despite water conservation measures.

By Kimberly N. ChaseContributor of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2009

The almond trees in Jim Jasper’s orchards are starting to bloom, but drought has hit him hard.

Kimberly N. Chase

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Newman, Calif.

The almond orchards are beginning to bloom in California’s Central Valley, the vast swath of fertile, flat land that runs up and down the middle of the state. Bees are pollinating the rows of flowering trees, and the harvest will shape up over the coming months.

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But for many farmers, one crucial thing is missing from this picture – water.

The US Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water allocation in arid regions, announced last week it will not provide vital irrigation to Central Valley farmers this year because of drought, and the California State Water Project expects to meet only 15 percent of water requests.

“That’s unheard-of,” says Jim Jasper, an almond farmer in Newman, Calif. “We’ve never seen a zero allocation for water.” Many growers here are destroying older and less productive trees to conserve water for other crops.

The University of California estimates that the drought may cause 847,000 acres to go unplanted this year, with income reductions of more than $2 billion and the loss of 70,000 jobs.

One of the richest farming regions in the country, the Central Valley covers 18,000 square miles between the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada. It includes the San Joaquin Valley in the south and the Sacramento Valley in the north.

Many farmers and ranchers came here after the gold rush of 1849, and government irrigation projects after World War II allowed farming to expand. The area produces more than 300 crops, including nuts, fruits, vegetables, and grains, and it accounts for one-sixth of US-grown produce.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project typically supplies about one-fourth of the water used by California farmers. Much of the land has access to groundwater and local irrigation systems, but many farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin valley rely solely on federal water.

There’s always been fierce competition for water in the West.

Much of it goes to wildlife refuges, municipal and industrial use, and to water rights holders from before the current system was established. Some of it is being retained for river flows necessary to the survival of endangered fish species including chinook salmon and the delta smelt.

If California production is drastically reduced, the water crisis could affect American kitchens. In an age when people want fresh, local produce, a reduction could ultimately lead to more imports, warns the California Farm Bureau.

Still, Richard Howitt, professor of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of California in Davis says it’s important to keep this drought in perspective. The acreage reduction he estimates at 18 percent will affect the entire supply chain, from farmers, processors, and fieldworkers, to tractor vendors, truck drivers, and gas stations.

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