West Side agriculture is facing a drought crisis, with surface water allocations reduced to the Central California Irrigation District and eliminated altogether in small federal districts such as the Del Puerto Water District.
Some growers are leaving open ground fallow and abandoning older orchards, particularly in districts such as Del Puerto, to concentrate what little water they have on fewer acres of permanent plantings or higher-value crops.
Comparisons are being drawn to the four-year drought which started in 2012
Newman almond grower Jim Jasper, who sits on the Del Puerto board of directors, noted that 2021 represents a second consecutive drought year.
Del Puerto received 20 percent its full contractual water allocation last year, Jasper said. This year, the Bureau of Reclamation initially projected a 5 percent allocation; that was put on hold and recently the allocation was officially reduced to zero.
The latest development was not unexpected, Jasper said.
“We knew it was going to stay at zero,” he commented.
“It’s really tough,” Jasper added. “This (drought) is in a second year. The second year feels like the fourth year of the (2012-16) drought. It is that serious. It is dire, but not so dire that we won’t be able to get through it.”
The Del Puerto district runs along the I-5 corridor from Vernalis to Santa Nella.
The Central California Irrigation District, which extends from Crows Landing to Mendota, anticipates receiving 75 percent of its full surface water allocation under the “critical” water year designation. The CCID is among water exchange contractor agencies with strong water rights that protect their allocations to a degree during times of drought.
Nonetheless, said Jarrett Martin, the district’s general manager, “even at 75 percent there are all sorts of challenges.”
He said the district and its growers have a strong well field from which to draw during times when surface water is in short supply.
The district allows growers to be credited for water they pump into the system, and operates a supplemental supply of water generated from the well fields.
Growers had an opportunity to express interest in the supplemental pool earlier this year and again more recently, Martin noted.
“We don’t don’t how much demand or supply there will be, but we will try to pro-rate it for growers to at least get their crops out of the ground,” Martin explained.
The district carefully monitors and manages the aquifer, he stressed.
“Our aquifer is in a pretty good situation....it is not an unlimited source for five or six straight years. We have measures and protections in place,” Martin stated. “We have the tools, the program, the management and the monitoring to keep a close eye on it.”
Some Del Puerto growers will also turn to wells, Jasper said, but groundwater in areas of the district is high in salinity, which is detrimental to crops.
New groundwater management regulations are also in place, he noted, to prevent over-drafting the aquifer.
What supplemental water is available on the open market is drawing a premium price, Jasper added.
During the depths of the last drought, he pointed out, almond prices were high enough that growers could afford higher-priced water to nurture their orchards. That’s no longer the case, he said, as “there is not very much profit margin in growing almonds.”
Water prices on the open market are around $600 an acre-foot, Jasper pointed out.
“That can go on for a year or maybe two, but it can’t go on for very long without being devastating to a lot of people,” he told Mattos Newspapers.
Jasper said his company, Stewart & Jasper, removed about 60 acres of older almond trees last year and another 100 acres this year. The orchards would have been slated for removal in the next few years regardless, he explained. “We will get them out sooner and save a little water,” he said.
Some growers had carryover water supplies, Jasper noted, and a recycling project will deliver about six inches per acre of treated waste water from Turlock and Modesto.
“Thank goodness for that six inches of water,” Jasper remarked. “It means a lot.”
Some land is also being fallowed in the CCID, Martin said, but not to the extent seen in other districts.
No surface water is allocated to the district’s Class II during a critical year, Martin noted, which has contributed to some land being fallowed if not adequately served by a well.
In other cases, he said, “growers wanted to ensure that their higher quality ground had enough water so they set some of their more marginal land aside.”
Perhaps the most pressing concern, Jasper and Martin reflected, is the prospect of the drought continuing into future years.
“If next year is equally dry, you start the water year off with a bucket less full,” Martin pointed out. “We run the risk of a super-critical year when we get less than our 75 percent supply.”