Moving water through California is one of the most polarizing issues, say farmers. (Photo: Catherine Merlo)
Agriculture takes hit.
The fight for water isn’t new to California as agriculture, environmentalists and urban areas are all hungry for a piece of the pie. But the persistent dry conditions have further dwindled supply, and the fights are heating up.
Entering its third consecutive year, extreme drought plagues more than 60% of the state. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, opening the door for federal aid. He also asked all residents to conserve water with a 20% reduction in use.
In February, California officials announced that nearly 1 million acres of farmland would not receive water allocations. The state’s Department of Water Resources says this marks the first time in the water project’s 54-year history that such an extreme action was taken.
"Today’s actions mean that everyone—farmers, fish, people—in our cities and towns will get less water as a result, but these actions will protect us better in the long run," says Mark Cowin, California Department of Water Resources director. "Simply put, there’s not enough water."
Farmers such as Joel Ackerknecht learn to do with less. Photo: Catherine Merlo
The Fresno County Farm Bureau projects 200,000 to 300,000 acres will be left fallow in that area, most of which is in the Westland Water District under federal authority.
Due to the severe water shortage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered federal assistance. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the money will be earmarked for specific needs, including irrigation improvements and assistance with water facilities.
While the situation is severe, farmers such as Joel Ackerknecht are accustomed to tight supplies. He farms almonds and other perennial crops in the San Joaquin Valley. An area that used to be consumed with row crops, is now mostly nut bearing trees, which is why water each year is essential. Leaving perennial crops fallow isn’t an option.
"In California, we’re in a regulated drought, as well as a meteorological drought," says Ackerknecht. "The federal district is impacted by the river restoration—a project to restore the salmon. Our state is affected by the Delta smelt and the pumping issue. Basically, moving water through California is one of the most polarizing issues."
Mike Wood also farms almonds and row crops in Fresno County. In recent years, he’s been forced to move irrigated water to the almond trees and leave his row crop acres bare.
"As an industry, we’re taking the brunt," Wood says. "We’re willing to take our share of the blame, but we’re getting 100% of it. Whether you look at unscreened diversions, pollution from municipalities around the Delta or invasive species, there are a lot of factors in this that don’t seem to be getting any of the blame."
As water scarcity remains a threat in the state, it’s elevated to the federal level. In February, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would stall San Joaquin River projects and roll back environmental regulations. But the bill faces criticism from California Democratic senators who see protecting these environmental issues as a top priority.
For farmers in the area, no water means less crops, and now Wood’s legacy is at stake. "It’s become a way of life," Wood says. "The frustration level is high. I have a son in agriculture, but he wants nothing to do with this. A lot of it has to do with the problems we face on an annual basis to whether we will survive."
- March 2014