Freeze-Dried Under a Desert Sun

Its farms parched and its cities puckering, California faces the need for reinvention

But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat. - Traditional folk song

AS Grady Woolsey steers his small truck up a hillside dirt road, soldier-straight rows of plump, squat lemon trees flutter by like the spokes of a wheel. The chapparal-dry air is heavy with the vinegary stench of rotting citrus.

``This is from the freeze,'' he says, cracking one of the brittle brown leaves that enshroud each of about 4,000 trees. Littering the branches and ground are hollow, yellow-brown balls, shriveled and juiceless.

``This is from the drought,'' he says, pulling branches away from one trunk. Just above the soil, a foot-wide swath of bubbling, amber sap girdles the tree. Bark has pulled back from the inner white flesh.

With a one-two punch unrivaled in memory or record books, frost and drought have dealt the nation's most-productive agricultural state a devastating blow, threatening its future as the promised land of farming.

The lowest temperatures since 1913 hit five nights running in late December, virtually wiping out California's citrus crop and wreaking unknown damage on dozens of row crops.

The drought, now in its fifth year, has county, state, and federal water officials sweating over the most serious realignment of water distribution in decades. Rainfall forecasts for 1991 stand at less than half of normal. The Sierra Nevada snowcap is only 13 percent of normal.

Last week, President Bush declared a natural disaster in 31 counties. The federal government announced a 75 percent cutback in water delivery. And Gov. Pete Wilson outlined a drought plan Friday that urged local communities to cut water use by half, proposed a $100 million drought fund, and called for a state water bank.

``For each of the past four years I never believed this drought would go on for another year,'' says John Corkins, a local farmer and chairman of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. ``The storms continually go north or south of us and we're starting to get nervous whether or not this is permanent.''

Eighty percent of California farms are still family-owned with legacies of hardship dating back to dust bowl days. Statewide loses to farmers, not including related industries, amount to $2 billion this season. ``If this goes on five more years, we will be back to the desert from whence we came,'' says Mr. Corkins.

``California invented itself through water,'' says historian Kevin Starr, who has chronicled the century-long building of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that turned arid valleys of sage into agriculture- and people-rich oases.

``Now the re-invention of the new, limited California is coming through water,'' he says.

HERE in the second-most agriculturally productive US county - Fresno to the north is first, Kerns to the west is third - farmers, biologists, and agricultural specialists such as Mr. Woolsey are still assessing the damage caused by the cold snap. And they are girding for more drought.

Tulare County gets all of its surface water from the Friant-Kern Canal, which is owned by the US Bureau of Reclamation. Last week, the Bureau cut back water delivery from the Friant to 5 percent of normal. Although Tulare County has one of the healthiest underground aquifers in the state, farmers must pay to pump their own wells. And the further the water table drops, the more it costs to pump.

``Since 1960, the cost of pumping water here has gone from $12.50 per acre-foot to $67.50,'' says Corkins. (An acre-foot, roughly 325,000 gallons, is enough to submerge one acre of land under one foot of water - about as much as one urban family of four uses in a year.)

In neighboring Kern County, which has little usable groundwater, farmers have had their surface water turned off completely. The state water project that supplies the area also supplies Los Angeles. When there is a drought, state law says people come before farmers.

Pulling together to conserve and share water and other resources, many farmers will let many acres lie fallow or switch away from water-guzzling crops like cotton and alfalfa. And about 75 percent of county farmers have switched from wasteful ditch irrigation to a new form water emitters that conserve water, cash, and fertilizer (See related story).

``If something's got to go, many will use what little water they have to salvage permanent plantings such as trees and kiss off their row crops for a year,'' says Mario Santoyo, operations manager for the Friant Water Users Authority.

`THIS is the biggest blow to California agriculture in history, and it won't bounce back that easily,'' says Curtis D. Lynn, Tulare County director for the University of California Cooperative Extension. Tulare sustained $500 million of the state's $800 million in frost damage to crops. The county's packing industry lost $150 million and laid off 8,000 workers; processing lost $100 million.

Mr. Lynn points out that some 5,000 acres of trees were wiped out by the freeze; the trees that survived the freeze will produce lower yields for about three years. And factoring in the drought, those estimates should be extended. ``Each unknown begins to multiply on every other,'' he says.

This damage may be offset by past harvests, however. Despite the drought, Tulare County has reached record levels of agricultural output each of the past four years.

``The citrus industry expects a freeze every 10 years,'' says Fred Foster, executive director of Farm Credit Services, which provides loans to local farmers. ``For them, this is like turning the lights off in a high-rise office building - they can find their way around it.''

Mr. Foster says there have been no serious instances of insolvency or nonpayment with his company's loans to citrus growers. ``Most are very well collateralized with lots of equity to allow us to stand still for a missed payment or two, or reamortize,'' he says.

But Corkins says lenders are demanding proof of water allotments or well levels on loan applications. ``There are those who have no water who will be bankrupt or insolvent next season. And others who can't show they have enough to produce their crop will have trouble getting loans to carry them through,'' he says.

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