Drought forcing growers to give up on some crops

FRESNO, Calif.

Thousands of acres of land will not be in production this year, and that means a big hit to the local economy and the loss of thousands of jobs.

Because of the drought, dusty fields in Western Fresno County won't be growing anything this year.

"We are probably going to fallow between 9,500 and 9,800 acres," said Steve Ozuna, a farm manager for Harris Farms.

Harris Farms will not grow lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, onions and melons this year, trying to save that water from the nearly 10,000 acres of row crops to irrigate their 5,000 acres of almond trees. That is, if they can buy enough water to keep the trees alive.

In a normal year, water would cost from $100 to $400 an acre foot. This year, prices are already climbing to $1,700 an acre foot. An acre of almonds needs about four acre feet of water per year to survive.

"Most crops don't pencil out at that number for water, if it's the difference between saving an orchard or not depending on how much water you want to buy, it's a tough choice to make," said Ozuna.

Saving the almonds means sacrificing the other crops, and an estimated loss 4,000 jobs on this ranch alone. Much more land, perhaps 200,000 additional acres on other farms, will be fallowed this year.

With a devastating impact on the economy, especially the communities like Mendota that depend on farming for jobs. Mayor Robert Silva is expecting hard times.

"Eighty-five percent of the jobs in Mendota are ag related. We're talking from truck drivers, to packing shed workers, to people who work in the fields to driving the trucks. Its ag related, it impacts our city when there's less work out there," said Silva.

The people of Mendota never have it easy. Because so much of the work is seasonal, at any one time the city of 10,000 may have an unemployment rate of 30 percent. But with the last drought cycle in 2009, it rose to over 40 percent. Residents relied on food giveaways and other relief, and it's likely they will again.

"We've notified a lot of food banks, other groups that bring in food for food lines, that we are going to anticipate that happening again, so we are getting ready," said Silva. "We are also alerting the businesses to be ready because there's going to be less money floating around this area."

Growers are going what they can to keep crops and communities alive. The race is on to manage what water is available on both the west and east sides of the Valley.

Ron Jacobsma manages the Friant Water District, which is on the usually water-rich east side, but this year he says "it's going to raise everybody's costs, it's going to cut into profit margins, but we could see, unless things improve, tens of thousands of acres of land for the first time ever idled in the San Joaquin Valley, on the East side. Growers are looking to the federal government for help. David Murillo is the head of the Bureau of Reclamations Mid Pacific region, which controls the water flow in the Central Valley Project. He's trying to accommodate the different demands for the region's water.

"We reclamation, we have an obligation to make sure that we not only take a look at the needs of ag, but we also have an obligation to take a look at what the environment needs, and what we've been trying to do is really take a look at what's required, what the needs are, and like I said we're trying to distribute the water so we can meet all those needs," said Murillo.

But what's clear to everyone is there is not enough water to come anywhere close to meeting those needs.

"If we continue dry like this we are all going to be in a world of hurt," said Jacobsma.

Growers are holding out hope that some additional storms will bring snow to the Sierra, but such relief gets less likely every day.

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