Drought About to Hit Home for Everyone in the Valley

February 26, 2009 7:13:30 PM PST
A $2 billion problem for California farmers is coming soon to grocery stores near you. Farmers say more than two years of drought has taken about $2 billion out of the state's economy and eliminated 80,000 jobs.Thousands of acres of farms are sitting idle right now because water supplies are limited and they might dry up in the middle of the summer. What that means for most of us is that within about a month, prices will probably start going up on produce at the grocery store.

Tumbleweeds are all that's growing in the Westlands Water District, where the Federal Bureau of Reclamation is giving them none of the 1.2 million acre-feet they're supposed to get. The canals are dried up and many fields are empty.

One little 80-acre plot used to produce about 40 million pounds of tomatoes every year. Now, it's just producing heartache for Jeff Yribarren. "You know, nothing's behind me [on the field]," he said. "We have no water to put anything behind me."

An empty field means Yribarren will lose somewhere around $2 million. But farmers say the trickle-down effect means his loss is about a $7 million loss for the state. "The money that comes out of this field from the tomatoes that I sell goes directly into the pockets of the tractor dealers, the fertilizer dealers, the insecticide dealers," Yribarren said. "It goes into the hands of the people who work for me and then spend that money in Fresno."

Water is flowing in some areas. In fact, just down the street from Yribarren's farm -- in a different water district -- the same canal is full of water and sprinklers are irrigating an onion field. But the farmer says don't be fooled. He's still cutting back on his crops. And many farmers are changing their approach, planting crops that don't need much water -- like garbanzo beans instead of lettuce or tomatoes. Farmers say everybody will start noticing the difference by April.

"Your grocery stores this summer will not have lettuce in April and October that normally comes right here in this area," said Sarah Woolf, of the Westlands Water District. "Tomatoes won't be as plentiful. [Neither will] garlic, onions, or cantaloupes."

State Senator Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, introduced a bill to build new water storage and delivery systems at a cost to taxpayers of about $10 billion. Farmers say it can't come soon enough.

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