California drought: Farmers cut back sharply, affecting jobs and food supply

With drought limiting water deliveries from northern California and the price of irrigation skyrocketing, farmers' fields lie fallow and the politicized debate over solutions rages.

Richard Vogel/AP
A freeway sign in Los Angeles advising motorists to save water because of the state's severe drought Feb. 14, 2014. The California Department of Transportation launched an education campaign with 700 electronic highway boards displaying the message: 'Serious Drought. Help Save Water.'

Besides the bulb-lit freeway signs every 10 miles along California Interstate 5 (“Serious drought, help save water”), there are printed placards posted in sparsely blooming almond and cherry groves, asparagus fields, and mile-upon-mile of empty dry-cracked or tilled earth: 

“No water = No food”

“No water = No jobs”

“No water = No future”

On the scruffy shoulder of Joe Del Bosque’s 2,000-acre patchwork of asparagus, almond, tomato, cherry, and cantaloupe fields just outside the Central Valley town of Los Banos, some 60 miles northwest of Fresno, is his own, more specific, sign:


50% cut 2010

60% cut 2009

65% cut 2008


His sign doesn't even mention the latest draconian measures affecting farmers here. In late January, California officials, for the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project, announced they were cutting off the flow of water from the northern part of the state to the south, affecting both farms and cities, starting this spring. This as California’s Central Valley, producer of half of America’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, is experiencing its worst drought on record. Unsurprisingly, on a swing through the farming region, the only topic of discussion is the growing number of widely divergent plans to deal with it.

Republicans in the US House came up with a plan that would relax protection of the Delta smelt – listed as an endangered species in the state's environmental protection law – and require water dedicated to sustaining fish and wildlife to be diverted by the end of 2018 to the Central Valley Project, a federal water management project devised to provide irrigation to Central Valley farms.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer last week came up with another drought aid plan, which would provide $300 million to increase the flow of water from northern California, where the state receives the majority of its rainfall, to the south, but would also require that environmental protections be upheld.

And Friday President Obama announced a $1 billion Climate Resilience Fund designed to help communities deal with the effects of climate change. Farmers say $1 billion doesn’t go very far in a state as big as California, which has a $60 billion farming industry, and wondered aloud if the $160 million in federal assistance Mr. Obama outlined – for food banks and livestock – would really help farmers that much.

The clash of “fish versus farmers” looms over discussions, with Democrats leaning more toward environmentalists' concerns, and Republicans appearing to try to capitalize on voter anger over water rationing as a way to get traction against the state’s popular Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, who is up for reelection later this year.

Mr. Del Bosque recounts his participation in a water forum last Friday at the World Ag Expo, the largest farm implement show in the world, in the southern Central Valley town of Tulare. Farmers told their stories in front of politicians, the media, and water agency officials, noting over and over that when farms fail, migrant workers lose their jobs and local stores, communities, and schools all suffer.

For Del Bosque, the next few months are critical. He is already idling his 110 acres of cantaloupe fields, which have been prepared for planting. That will mean the loss of work and income for 100 workers in the crucial months from July through October. The summer months are when migrant workers make 90 percent of their yearly earnings, harvesting seven days a week. But Del Bosque is fallowing the fields because he has banked enough water for only half his crops – and will instead likely try to salvage his almond trees, which are 12 years old.

Since all farmers are in the same situation, the price for water has increased 10-fold – from $135 an acre-foot last year to $1,350 last week. (An acre-foot, nearly 326,000 gallons, is the estimated annual water usage of an average suburban family household.)

“That means I can’t afford to give this cantaloupe field the water it needs, it’s just not worth it,” he says. Three years ago he invested $120,000 for water-drip irrigation, plastic tubes that lie 18 inches beneath the dirt.

And more than just one season’s income is at stake, he says. Upscale stores on the East Coast – such as Publix and Whole Foods – rely on continuity of product, and if his farm can’t produce, they may look elsewhere.

But Del Bosque says he is hopeful.

Even though one touchy subject in the background of the water forum last week in Tulare was the water war that for decades has divided California environmentalists and farmers, Del Bosque says compromise is possible, if handled deftly.

“Officials can’t bring rain, but I’ve seen Senator Feinstein achieve great compromise by getting different sides of an issue in the same room at the same time and discussing their needs from the heart,” he says.

Feinstein did this after the severe drought of 2009, in a meeting with the principal water users alongside officials of the US Bureau of Reclamation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and state water agencies, he adds. She was “genuine and methodical,” he says, and “listened carefully and took voluminous notes.”

“After farmers and environmentalists both had their say, she looked up and said, ‘Is there any reason we can’t make some of these compromises?’ and everyone said, ‘No,’ ” recounts Del Bosque. The result was that farmers got 40 percent of their normal allotment when they might have expected only 25 percent. “It was hard for anyone to say ‘no’ to her because the ideas made so much sense and people understood the real concerns coming from both sides. She got both sides to listen to each other,” says Del Bosque, “not just through intermediaries.”

Farmer John Harris, from the southern Central Valley town of Coalinga, was also a featured forum participant in Tulare. Since 1937, his family has been farming 33 crops, from “salad bowl” vegetables and melons to citrus, nuts, and wine grapes, and he openly comes down on the side of farmers in the fish versus farmers debate.

“It is problematic if major help can come just from what Obama/Feinstein/Boxer have proposed thus far, which tells agencies like Fish and Wildlife to help as best they can,” says Mr. Harris. He and others say the directives in the senators’ proposal are vague and open to interpretation, creating the potential for litigation by environmental groups.

He wants environmental groups to ease their concerns over protected species, saying, “What is really needed is something like the [US House] bill, which faces a tough go in the Senate.”

National observers say the situation’s already-complex issues (north versus south, urban versus rural, recreationalists versus environmentalists) is only exacerbated by the state’s important role in feeding the nation.

So what is the potential political fallout?

“Disasters of this sort are often bad for incumbent officeholders, despite the fact they are not responsible for the difficult conditions,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “There is one way for Obama, Feinstein, and Boxer to make the best of this troublesome situation,” he adds. “That is to bring in federal aid, and lots of it. California is an important political base for the national Democratic Party and is likely to be at the front of the line for relief in such situations.”

Other analysts outside the state say that as profound a problem as the drought is, it is not likely to shake up the state’s politics too much, even though there's a gubernatorial election in the fall.

“The drought affects many congressional districts in California, but most of them are safe for one party or the other,” says John Johannes, a political scientist at Villanova University. “There is little chance that the drought politics will mean a whole lot in the 2014 elections."

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