"We Are Just In Survival Mode Now"
They talk about solutions that will take 10 to 15 years to materialize. BUT they won't dare talk about turning the pumps on NOW!
Jul 26, 2013
It would be nice if our political leaders would be as concerned for farmers (and what will be their declining TAX BASE) as they are for the homeless or the transgendered. These are, apparently, the pressing matters of our time. While the Nero's of the political world fiddle, the west side is burning, without water and with little hope for the future. It's particularly appalling because man-made decisions can solve our problem. It was man-made decisions that caused them. But, they do nothing. They talk about solutions that will take 10 to 15 years to materialize. BUT they wonn't dare talk about turning the pumps on NOW!
The article below by Patrick Cavanaugh is the best yet at describing the dire nature of what's happening on the west side. We hope you'll read it all. If you don't have time, here are some highlights (lowlights) from the article:
Curtis Stubblefield, plant manager with Silver Creek Almond Company: “I do not see anything positive on the water standpoint out here. There is nothing politically that sounds like it’s going to get done.”
Andrew Vargas, who farms with his dad Arnaldo: “We spend our day looking for water instead of looking after the trees.”
Marty Acquistapace farms 2200 acres for Blacksburn Farming Co: “That can definitely be a scary day, waiting to see how far the water level has dropped. Severe overdrafts have been happening all over the West Side for the last five years.”
Cort Blackburn, President of Blackburn Farming Co: “We are just in survival mode now and slowly poisoning the trees. If we do not get two good years of surface water, the trees may not make it. We will be out of business and about 30 employees will lose their jobs.”
Finally, this from Blackburn: “The problem is that our elected officials do not have any idea—they have zero clue—as to how bad it’s gotten.”
West Side Badly Hurting
Zero Water Allocation Next Season Could Cause Farms to Shut Down
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor
Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles documenting the water crises on the West Side.
Reeling from a water allocation reduced to 20 percent delivered through the Westlands Water District in western Fresno and Kings County, and the prospects of zero water next season, many almond growers are facing what could be their next-to-last production year.
“The short term future is completely unknown and very dire,” said Curtis Stubblefield, plant manager with Silver Creek Almond Company near Firebaugh, Calif. “I do not see anything positive on the water standpoint out here. There is nothing politically that sounds like it’s going to get done,” he noted.
The water shortages are severely affecting communities such as Firebaugh, and Mendota, in the federal water district that runs throughout the West Side of Fresno County. Unemployment remains high because nearly 25 percent of row-crop land sits idle due to lack of water.
“The situation is halting many decisions that need to be made,” said Andrew Vargas who farms with his dad, Arnaldo, off Panoche Road and Fairfax on the West Side. “We spend our day looking for water instead of looking after the trees,”Arnaldo said.
Westlands encompasses more than 600,000 acres of farmland in Fresno and Kings Counties. The district serves about 600 family-owned farms that average 900 acres each, As of June 20th, Westlands was able to secure 135,000 acre-feet of supplemental water that partially meets the demands of farms. Still, even with this supplemental water, farms are critically water-deficient for their permanent crops.
Marty Acquistapace has been farming 2,200 acres of almonds for Blackburn Farming Co., and its almond processor, Silver Creek Almond Co., all west of Mendota. Acquistapace joined the company eight years ago, when water was more plentiful. Due to the 2009 first biological opinion in 2009, water allocations started at an unprecedented zero, but following the historic water march it was raised to 10 percent in Westlands Water District. Then came 2010, 2011, and 2012 all at 40 percent allocations.
This season’s rain and snow fell short for California; however it should not have led to a devastating 20 percent water allocation for Westlands growers. After all, environmental diversion of nearly one million acre-feet of water flowed to the ocean instead of the San Luis Reservoir. Furthermore, unless California receives significantly above-average rainfall this winter, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation warns of a zero allocation for 2014. This would mean two back-to-back years of extreme water reductions for a permanent crop that requires four acre-feet per year for optimum production.
As irrigation water flows from either the wells or Westlands Water, it’s pressurized and sent out to the orchards in double drip lines down each row. The water flows from one gallon-per-hour emitters down into the soil to the parched tree roots struggling to meet the evapotranspiration demands on 110-degree days in early July.
“Twenty percent allocation is only ½ acre-feet for the trees. To compensate and get through the almond season, we add well water to help irrigate our mature trees,” noted Acquistapace. “But our well water has elevated levels of sodium and boron, both of which cause severe leaf burn and hurt this year’s and next year’s crop. Yet, we have to come up with 3.5 acre-feet; unfortunately, we were able to purchase only a limited amount of water from another district, so the trees are showing signs of extensive leaf burn,” he said. “The toxic levels of boron and sodium cause defoliation and a slow decline of the trees.
“Conditions will be far worse in August and will establish a poor production season for next year due to the stress,” Acquistapace said.
“We found leaf scorch at the leaf tips and margins, in 2009, that halted new growth. At that time, we compared a water sample from fresh Westlands water with a sample from one of our better wells,” he said.
The test showed that Westlands Salinity EC was 0.5, and our well was 1.2. Similarly, Westlands sodium Meq./L test was 1.6, and the well was 13.7. When it came to boron, Westlands showed 0.2 ppm, while the well water was 2.0. The results demonstrated that the well water values were excessive for agricultural purposes.
Acquistapace noted he was using about 40 percent well water versus 60 percent surface water in 2009. “But this 2013 season is much worse as we are having to use 70 - 80 percent well water, and the leaf burn is looking grimmer.”
“So we blend the well water with Westlands water, which helps, but the toxic values are still elevated,” Acquistapace said. “Our trees did not fully recover from 2009 until 2011.”
The operation’s wells are 900 to 1200 feet deep, with standing water at 430 feet, and pumping from about 700 feet. “We have not done a pump test to see where we are, and we just recently called a guy to do it,” explained Acquistapace.“That can definitely be a scary day, waiting to see how far the water level has dropped. Severe overdrafts have been happening all over the West Side for the last five years.”
Cort Blackburn, president of the Blackburn Farming Co., noted, “It’s only the third time we have had to run those wells. “We are just in survival mode now and slowly poisoning the trees. If we do not get two good years of surface water, the trees may not make it. We will be out of business and about 30 employees will lose their jobs.” Blackburn added,“Farmers on the West Side in Westlands are worried about this.”
“Having farmed and raised families, multiple generations of farming families could most likely go away after two back-to-back years of very little or no water,” Blackburn said. “We cannot look ahead more than one year. We do not think about anything else except the water challenge.”
“The dire situation on the West Side can be solved if both sides of the U.S. Congress would cooperate,”noted Blackburn. “The problem is that our elected officials do not have any idea—they have zero clue—as to how bad it’s gotten.”
Surface Water Only Leads to Extra Pressure
For growers without supplemental wells and little opportunity to purchase water transfers—at any price—are possibly seeing the end of their cultivation of and dedication to farming almonds, and the finality of their hopes and dreams.
Arnaldo Vargas was a farm worker and later a foreman for Blackburn Farming. The company helped him get started 17 years ago with his own 147-acre orchard. His son, Andrew, recently graduated from UC Davis and joined his dad in the day-to-day farming operation two years ago.
“I earned a degree in agricultural management and rangeland resources. I remember coming home after graduating from UC Davis, thinking I could do some great things on the ranch, and I had a lot of different ideas,” said Andrew. “But I came back to a 40 percent allocation, which was not enough to farm the crop. We had to work hard to find water, and the same was true in 2012. Yet, this year has been very difficult finding extra water, even at more than $600 an acre-foot.”
“We had some leftover water from last year in our Westlands account and that has helped us irrigate beyond the 20 percent allocation. Hopefully, we can make it to the end of the season,” said Andrew, who is also the operation’s pest control advisor.
“But next year, if there is a zero allocation, we are starting out with no water whatsoever.” Andrew added, “They did not teach us how to find secondary water from other sources at UC Davis. It’s tough to think about what will happen next year. I just arrived on the ranch two years ago, and my dad and I really do not want to think about exit plans.”
“We are really facing some tough decisions,” said Andrew. “If we are not able to have a crop next year, then we are not going to get financing. What do we need to do this year to get by? What cuts do we need to make? It’s tough,”he said.
“If we are going to survive next year,” said Arnaldo, “the one thing we have to do is find water, see who has water for sale and buy it.” Andrew added, “You just call irrigation districts nonstop. Last year was not so bad as one irrigation district would forward me to another to work out a deal. But this year, hundreds of farmers are making the calls, and it’s harder to find water. Next year will be much worse.”
“Sometimes you may run across someone who has 10 acre-feet to spare, you make a deal and then it falls through the cracks because it’s a major price game,” Andrew explained. “Some growers are willing to spend $1200 an acre-foot, but we do not have that much wiggle room.”
“Extreme environmentalists and politicians are incredibly disconnected when they are pushing their own goals,” Andrew commented. “Yes, we have to be shepherds to the land, and I think there is a way that we can reach a compromise where the fish can be protected, and maybe we do not get a 100 percent allocation, but we certainly should not be getting zero percent.”
“It’s incredible to think that the actions of somebody trying to push for their own political career can impact not just big farmers, but small farmers, their employees and the entire community,” said Andrew.
Surrounding the Vargas Ranch are almond orchards in tremendous stress conditions. Andrew said, “Many of those trees were out of water in early July, two months too soon.”
“We are not bad people; we are just trying to make a living. Farming is our life. My dad loves coming to work. But we do not know how long this will last. There’s incredible uncertainty,” he said.
Frank Williams’ farm, adjacent to the Vargas’, also has only Westlands surface water. Williams has been farming with his brother-in-law, Mark Fickett, since 1985. “We devote 45 percent of our ground to trees. The rest is open land for field crops but has been left fallow due to the water crises,”Williams said.
“We got the call from Westlands that our last water delivery would be July 8th,” Williams said. “That’s a phone call that you do not want to take,” he added. “Before we got the call, we had been able to shift our open land water allocation to our trees and purchase some supplemental water at $700 per acre-foot. These measures helped for this year, but still not enough for the almonds.”
He noted that next year will be a different situation with the potential zero allocation.
“We are spending a lot of time working on water for the long term, turning over every stone. I tell you, if I am going down, I am going to do the best I can before I fail,” Williams said.
Get the 10 most recent items from our RSS feed.