The lack of water to grow crops dominated farm-related news in the San Joaquin Valley during the spring and summer of 2014. The federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project announced zero allocations for the water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley that buy water from them, although the SWP raised its allocation to five percent in April 2014. 

California has eight million acres of irrigated land, and 410,000 acres or five percent are expected to be fallowed in 2014 due to lack of water, including 10,000 acres that would normally be planted to vegetable and melon crops. About 40 percent of California's irrigated crop land, some 3.2 million acres, are planted to trees and vines.

A UCD study released in May 2014 estimated that San Joaquin Valley growers would receive a net 1.5 million fewer acre feet of surface water in 2014, which could lead to 6,400 fewer jobs in crop production, three percent of the average 200,000 farm worker jobs in the San Joaquin Valley and 1.5 percent of the state's average farm employment of 400,000. An additional 8,000 related nonfarm jobs could be lost. Some of the farm and nonfarm jobs expected to be lost are seasonal. 

The UCD study estimated a total 6.5 million fewer acre feet of surface water, but assumed that growers would partially replace this missing surface water by pumping five million additional acre feet of ground water. Groundwater is being depleted faster than it is recharged in both normal and drought years.

Droughts are common in the arid west, but the 2014 drought was more significant for several reasons, including a "hardening" of the demand for water as more San Joaquin Valley crops are perennial trees and vines rather than annual crops that farmers can choose not to plant in water-short years. 

Agriculture needs cheap water. An acre foot of water is 325,851 gallons, the average annual consumption of a suburban household, for which it pays $500 to $1,000. Farmers pay much less. If water costs $33 an acre foot, it costs one one-hundredth of a cent a gallon; at $326 an acre foot, water costs one-tenth of a cent per gallon (an acre is 43,560 square feet, and an acre foot of water covers an acre of land to a depth of 12 inches). At $3,260 an acre foot, water costs one cent a gallon.

The agricultural price of water is often less than $326 an acre foot. However, in drought years, farmers are willing to pay much higher prices for water to keep their perennial crops alive. Accepted bids for 12,000 acre feet of water sold by Kern county's Buena Vista Water Storage District in February 2014 totaled $13.5 million, and most sales were for at least $1,000 an acre foot. Buena Vista is offering the farmers it serves $400 an acre not to plant crops in order to free up water for sale.

Experts agree that the major water issue is management rather than availability. The patchwork of water rights that has evolved in California and the west, where pre-1914 "riparian" (first in time, first in right) water rights are senior to post-1914 "junior" water rights, means that the availability and the price of water used in agriculture varies widely. The right to water is generally defined as the right to "put the water to beneficial use."

Variable water prices are one reason why water-intensive crops such as rice are grown within a few hundred miles of orchards willing to pay far more than rice is worth for water to keep their trees alive. Some water districts do not allow their farmer-members to sell water outside the district, fearing that if they allowed water to be sold, a court may decide that farmers did not "need" the water, potentially opening the door to environmentalists or urban water districts that want more water.

Farmers have traditionally argued that the solution to insufficient water is to build more dams and reservoirs and to choose food over fish when deciding how much northern California water can be moved south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta. Rains in March-April 2014 highlighted this fish versus food debate, as farmers complained that too much late spring run off was allowed to flow into the Pacific Ocean. Environmentalists decried stepped-up pumping to send some of the run-off south, saying that threatened fish are killed by the giant pumps that take water from the delta and move it south.

The 2014 drought convinced some farmers that the time has come to make it easier to transfer water from low-value and water-hungry crops such as hay and rice to higher-value fruits and nuts. Many agree that the days of using as much ground water as can be pumped may be ending, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, where wells are dug ever deeper to obtain water. 

There are currently no limits on how much water farmers can pump from wells on their land, leading to fears that some of the farmers who share an aquifer may benefit at the expense of others. Banks may become reluctant to lend to growers who want to plant perennial crops on land without reliable rights to surface water, since the alternative is shared ground water.

By one estimate, California farmers have $50 billion invested in trees and vines that require a reliable water supply. As with farm labor, a widespread assumption among farmers has been that if they plant crops that need water, the federal and state governments would expand the infrastructure to provide water. This assumption is being tested by the drought. 

Increasing the efficiency with which farmers use water may not provide additional water supplies for several reasons. First, over-watering crops means that the excess water percolates into the ground, recharging groundwater reserves. Some of this recharging is lost with efficient drip irrigation. Second, experience shows that more efficient irrigation systems often lead to additional crop plantings and an increased demand for water, as when drip irrigation systems allowed pasture land to be converted to vineyards.

Melons (cantaloupes) are often grown in the water-short western part of Fresno county, and acreage is expected to be stable in 2014 despite the drought because melons require half as much water as cotton. California cotton acreage peaked at over 1.5 million acres in the early 1990s, and today is less than 300,000 acres. The state's melon (cantaloupe) acreage declined from about 50,000 acres in 2003 to less than 40,000 acres in 2013.

Melons are harvested between July and September. In 2013, there was a listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupes from Colorado's Rocky Ford region. 

State drought assistance funds for farm workers were released in summer 2014, with job-training and community organizations providing funds to workers who bring water bills and sign affidavits that unemployment or underemployment has caused a loss of income and a hardship. To receive rent assistance, applicants must show they are behind on payments and that their income has been reduced by the drought.



This post was an excerpt of the most recent Rural Migration News published in July 2014. 

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