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California faces water shortage, but fresh supplies should not suffer

When the final snow survey for the year was taken in early May in California’s mountains, the snowpack was only 17 percent of normal, which meant California farmers were not going to get their full allocation of water.

At the time, the California Department of Water Resources predicted the water projects would deliver 35 percent of the contracted water allocation, but that has since been scaled back to 20 percent, with only 10 percent expected next year under normal rain conditions. Anything less than normal is expected to result in a zero allocation from the water projects.

“It is a dire situation for many financially,” said Steve Smith of Turlock Fruit Company Inc., a longtime melon grower and shipper headquartered in Turlock in the center of the San Joaquin Valley. “But does that mean there is less melon acreage this year? No! And does that mean there will be less acreage planted next year? In my opinion the answer is also ‘No’.”

Smith said the water situation in California is complex as different districts have totally different situations. “In some areas the water is plentiful and cheap; in other areas it is sparse and expensive,” he said.

That is the case because of the existence of well water as well as the various microclimates and the location of storage facilities around the state. Some areas have a lot more water than other areas. At the end of the day, Smith said the vast majority of growers of fresh produce find one way or another to keep the packingsheds humming and the land producing. “The first crops they are going to cut back are the field crops,” he said. “We plant wheat as a rotation crop because you can’t plant melon crops back to back on the same land. This year we won’t be able to irrigate our wheat crop.”

Growers also move their acreage around. Next year the premium will be on land in areas that do have water. Growers will try to fallow land in expensive water areas and farm land where water might be available. “It’s going to be a lot more expensive and less profitable but we are committed to the melon deal first and foremost, so I expect we will have the same amount of acreage next year that we have this year.”

He said planning for next year’s crop is already under way, with many decisions already made. “We need to prep next year’s land by the fall so we already know what we are going to plant. I am assuming we will get a 10 percent allocation.”

If it’s less, he said he will compete with growers of permanent crops for the available water. He indicated that will drive the cost up, but growers should at least be able to put enough water on the land to make the crop.

November and December were unusually wet this rainy season but January through April proved to be very dry. The November and December storms built California’s snowpack water content to 134 percent of normal by Jan. 2, when DWR and the first snow survey was conducted. That percentage continued to drop throughout the year. Snow normally provides about a third of the water for California’s homes and farms as it melts into streams, reservoirs and aquifers.