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Down to the Last Drops : 3rd Year of Drought Forces State’s Farmers to Make Tough Choices

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

John Vereschagin’s almond trees were already beginning to bud in the springlike sunshine. Across the road was a new olive orchard Vereschagin and his sons had set out last year. The young trees’ roots were stirring from dormancy, and the soil appeared as moist as if it had recently rained.

But not a cloud was in the sky.

“We just finished irrigating the other day,” he explained to a recent visitor to his family’s 2,000-acre ranch near this farming community in the upper Sacramento Valley. “Normally, irrigation is the last thing on our minds at this time of year.”

Water is the first thing on the minds of most farmers in the state this year, however, as the nation’s No. 1 agricultural producer prepares for a new planting season in the face of a virtually unprecedented third straight year of drought.

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With reservoirs at about two-thirds of normal capacity for February and the Sierra Nevada snowpack about a third smaller than usual, California’s vaunted water-distribution system will be taxed even beyond the two-year drought of 1976-77, which cost the state’s economy an estimated $2.4 billion in lost revenue.

Pumping Underground Water

California’s elaborate system of water storage and distribution facilities enabled the state’s farmers to bring in a $15-billion harvest last year, despite a second year of drought. But this year, all along the yawning Central Valley, which stretches from Redding to Bakersfield, stored water is at a premium.

As in the case of Vereschagin, farmers up and down the state are preparing the soil for planting, and some are protecting their crops by pumping underground water that becomes more precious with each passing day. Their litanies vary little.

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* Robert Clark, manager of the Clenn-Colusa Water District in Willows, south of Orland, said he expects rice acreage to plunge by more than a third this year to 54,000 acres. Customers of the water district include some of the state’s largest rice growers. Rice requires about seven acre-feet of water per acre, about four of which are recovered for use downstream. “My phone’s been busy all day,” Clark said. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot.)

* In the San Joaquin Valley, the Kern County Water Agency expects only 40% of the 1.1 million acre-feet of water that it normally gets from the State Water Project. “This is going to hurt,” said Gene Lundquist, a director of the water agency and a vice president at Calcot Ltd., a cotton marketing cooperative.

* Among the hardest-hit water districts will likely be Westlands, on the opposite side of the San Joaquin Valley from Fresno. While 2.5 acre-feet of water are needed to irrigate an acre of cotton, the district expects to get Central Valley Project water amounting to about one acre-foot per acre. So farmers depending on that district will be obliged to take land out of production to conserve enough water to have any crops at all.

Across the valley from Orland, Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project, lies more than 165 feet below the rim of the massive earthen dam impounding it. “In 1983 you could almost touch it from here,” recalled a resident enjoying the sunshine and broad vistas while strolling atop the dam.

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According to an assessment prepared by the state Department of Water Resources, if 1989 reproduces the same subnormal precipitation of the preceding two years, it will mean “inadequate supplies for urban and agricultural users, poorer water quality, impacts on fish and wildlife, fewer recreational opportunities and reduction of hydroelectric power.”

“It’s about 60% of normal and deteriorating daily,” Jason Peltier, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Assn., said of the project’s storage situation. Urban residents will feel the impact of this drought, he predicted.

Likely to be among the more seriously affected urban counties is Santa Clara, where the reservoirs that normally supply 40% of the water for 16 cities are “virtually empty,” according to water district spokeswoman Teddy Morse. Moreover, shipments of water from the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project will likely be cut in half, she said.

“The only way we’ll make it is to cut consumption by 45%, and we’ll never do that through voluntary efforts,” Morse said.

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Moment of Truth

Similar restrictions on water consumption are likely to be imposed in much of Southern California as well. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power faces diminished supplies from east of the Sierras, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California last year warned that cutbacks will be likely for all customers--agricultural, industrial and residential.

But for farmers facing planting decisions the moment of truth is at hand.

In the San Joaquin Valley, farmers begin planting cotton March 20 but must prepare their fields now. Most, as with the rice growers, will have the option of signing up for federal crop subsidies--the state’s only major subsidized crops. Drought will certainly make more attractive the requirement that participants set aside 25% of their usual cotton and rice acreage, even though that is double last year’s requirement.

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Even so, said Kevin McDermott, vice president for economic research for Calcot Ltd., a cotton marketing cooperative, many participants will plant far less than they could, even under the program.

“We’re all looking at our options,” said John Pucheu Jr., Calcot’s chairman and a cotton grower at Tranquility, a well-watered haven near the confluence of the San Joaquin and Kings rivers.

“You don’t leave the whole farm idle,” Pucheu explained. “You pick and choose. For us, cotton is our most important crop, so we’ll do everything to grow as much as we can. But if we also grew a lot of vegetables, or had orchards to keep alive, our choices would be different.”

But the effects of the drought vary widely. For example, the Placer County Water Agency east of Sacramento expects to meet “100% of our commitments” this year and still have surplus water to sell, said Ed Schnabel, general manager. Its reservoirs stand at 80% of total capacity, he said, and the snowpack high up in its watershed appears to be ample at this point.

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“There’s more than 10 feet of snow up there,” Schnabel said. “But storms are pretty hit and miss.”

To the north, storms have been more miss than hit. And, as a result, Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, is at about 40% of total capacity, or about two-thirds of normal for February. The Central Valley Project expects to cut all deliveries by at least 50% this year.

That’s particularly rough on the Orland-Artois Water District, which serves the Vereschagin family’s orchards of almonds, olives and prunes. “We’re in the worst situation of any water district in the state,” said Vereschagin, who doubles as a water district director.

While the district has actually received 80,000 acre-feet of water a year, its contract provides for deliveries of only 53,000 acre-feet, said manager Gus Lohse. So the 50% cut will entitle the district to just 26,500 acre-feet this year--about 25% of what it had needed.

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“There are 29,500 irrigated acres in the district,” said Vereschagin. “That’s less than one acre-foot per acre.” (Orchard crops require more than four acre-feet, he said.)

“You can cut back and keep the tree alive ,” he acknowledged, “but if you do, you’re affecting not just this year’s crop but the crop next year and possibly the third year down the line.”

While petitioning the Bureau of Reclamation for special relief, the district’s farmers--like their counterparts up and down the state--are assigning priorities to their acreage and crops. For example, Vereschagin said he will not replant emerging stands of oats--thirsty crops--to save available water for the family’s more valuable orchards.

3rd Year of Drought

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Downstream in Willows, Randy Lindquist raises cows and yearling steers. Lindquist said he has already cut the size of his herd because of the sparseness of grass and high cost of hay, “when you can find it.” He has also had to haul well water to supply water holes and troughs normally filled by rainfall.

“I’ve already had my third year of drought,” Lindquist said. “We’re pretty well shot, no matter what rains come now.”

His main concern, though, is whether to cut his herd further to reduce costs but jeopardize its future quality. While he can later buy replacements, he acknowledged, it has taken 18 years of breeding to produce the quality of his herd, which yields a 700-pound animal in the time it originally took to produce one weighing 475 pounds.

“I can’t just go out and buy that,” he said.

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Farmers in the state’s fertile salad bowl, the Salinas Valley, who usually get by with natural rainfall, have started their pumps early this year, said vegetable farmer Sig Christierson. “We shouldn’t have to be irrigating our fields at this time of year.”

There are problems with heavy pumping, too, added Joe Tonascia, who grows a wide range of vegetables year-round down the valley in Hollister, San Benito County.

“With everybody trying to pump, the water table goes down, and as the level drops so does the quality, and that’s rough on the crops,” Tonascia explained. “Right now, I’m at full bore on my irrigation.”

San Benito County usually gets about 12 inches of rain a year, almost all of it in the first three months.

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“If it rains for the next 30 days it won’t bother me,” Tonascia said.


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