By William M. Welch
July 28, 2009
FIREBAUGH, Calif. — The road to Todd Allen’s farm wends past irrigation canals filled with the water that California’s hot Central Valley depends on to produce vegetables and fruit for the nation. Yet not a drop will make it to his barren fields.
Three years into a drought that evokes fears of a modern-day dust bowl, Allen and others here say the culprit now isn’t Mother Nature so much as the federal government. Court and regulatory rulings protecting endangered fish have choked the annual flow of water from California’s Sierra mountains down to its people and irrigated fields, compounding a natural dry spell.
"This is a regulatory drought, is what it is," Allen says. "It just doesn’t seem fair."
For those like Allen at the end of the water-rights line, the flow has slowed to a trickle: His water district is receiving just 10% of the normal allocation of water from federal Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs. He says he’s been forced to lay off all his workers and watch the crops die on his 300 acres while bills for an irrigation system he put in are due.
"My payments don’t stop when they cut my water off," Allen says.
Although some farmers with more senior water rights are able to keep going, local officials say 250,000 acres has gone fallow for lack of water in Fresno County, the nation’s most productive agriculture county. Statewide, the unplanted acreage is almost twice that.
Unemployment has soared into Depression-era range; it is 40% in this western Fresno County area where most everyone’s job is dependent on farming. Resident laborers who for years sweated in fields to fill the nation’s food baskets find themselves waiting for food handouts.
"The water’s cut off," complains Robert Silva, 68, mayor of the farm community of Mendota. "Mendota is known as the cantaloupe capital of the world. Now we’re the food-line capital."
Three years of dry conditions is being felt across much of the nation’s most populous state.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a water emergency in February and asked for 20% voluntary cuts in water use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Drought Monitor lists 44% of the state as in a "severe" drought.
In arid Southern California, cities and water districts have raised rates to encourage conservation and imposed limits on use.
In Los Angeles, restaurants are banned from serving tap water unless diners ask for it. Residents can’t hose down driveways or sidewalks. Lawn watering is permitted only on Mondays and Thursdays.
This drought is in line with conditions two decades ago, says Elissa Lynn, senior meteorologist for the California Department of Water Resources. But the new federal rulings to protect smelt and salmon have limited water pumping from the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta, a vital link between water and its users.
Here in the state’s biggest farming region, fingers are pointing at the government, not nature.
"As California standards go, this is not a drought," says Bill Diedrich, a Firebaugh farmer and director of a water district. "It is the pumping restrictions."
The federal restrictions arise from environmental suits brought under the Endangered Species Act that argue pulling water out of the delta harms fish. A federal judge in 2007 ordered new biological studies and restrictions on water pumped out of the delta for farmers.
A group of water authorities filed countersuits. While the issue remains unsettled, the rulings have idled the water pumps for 11 months a year, Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf says. Environmental groups say water officials and farmers are overstating the problem.
"This is not a fish vs. farms problem," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research group in Oakland. "I believe they’re using the drought as an excuse to try and overturn these environmental decisions."
Richard Howitt, professor of agriculture and resource economics at University of California-Davis, estimates that statewide about 30% of the water shortage is a result of the environmental restrictions and 70% is drought. But the impact of the regulations hits particularly hard here in the farm region, he says, because complicated water-rights laws leave Allen and his neighbors at the end of the line in water distribution.
Howitt says his studies suggest that the restrictions could put as much as 45% of irrigated acreage in the Fresno area out of production — jacking up prices for melons, broccoli, tomatoes and other produce. The area also is a big producer of almonds, pistachios, lettuce and wheat.
Potential solutions such as more dams or a canal to bypass the delta and bring water to users are pipe dreams for a state with a huge budget deficit.
Meantime, the roads along this farm area are filled with signs warning that less water means less food. "If you like foreign oil, you’ll love foreign food," says a sticker on Allen’s truck.
"I wish they’d just put humans first and turn those pumps on," Allen says.