Water shortages force Stanislaus County’s Westside almond growers to make tough, costly choices

jnsbranti@modbee.comMay 17, 2014 

— Water shortages are forcing almond growers to make tough and costly decisions this spring.

That includes killing off the natural vegetation that normally grows between orchard rows, even though those weeds and wildflowers are home to the beneficial insects needed for integrated pest management.

“We spray the weeds to kill them so they don’t consume any water,” botany consultant Wes Asai of Turlock explained Friday during the Almond Board of California’s Environmental Stewardship Tour. “This is the first year we’ve had to do it.”

Asai expects losing that cover crop could cause a mite issue, which may require more pesticide spraying. But there’s no choice, at least not for the 2,000 acres of almond trees in Newman’s Stewart & Jasper Orchards, where every drop of moisture is coveted this season.

“Right now, water is more important,” said Asai, who specializes in pomology, the science of fruit cultivation. “We need to keep the trees alive.”

That’s been particularly difficult in western Stanislaus County during this third year of drought.

“A year like this with zero allocation (of Central Valley Project irrigation water) is very challenging,” company President Jim Jasper said. “I’m spending most of my time, unfortunately, on water issues.”

Unlike most growers in central Stanislaus – who benefit from water brought down from the Sierra by the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts – West Side farmers depend on CVP, Delta-Mendota Canal and the San Joaquin River water.

Stewart & Jasper trees get irrigation from the nearby Delta-Mendota, but Jasper described that canal as looking like a pond these days because of severely limited flows.

And unlike Stanislaus farmers to the east, Jasper said groundwater pumping is not an option in his corner of the county.

“We’re lucky if we get enough to flush the toilet,” Jasper said. “We have no well water here.”

The aquifers there are too salty to use for irrigation, and getting worse.

“The little bit we have is dropping very, very rapidly,” Jasper warned. He is convinced groundwater pumping by farmers to the east is drawing down the West Side’s water table.

Jasper is on the Del Puerto Water District’s board of directors, which is trying to secure a deal to tap into recycled water from Modesto and Turlock treatment plants. A $100 million pipeline to transfer that treated water to the Delta-Mendota Canal by 2018 is proposed.

“That’s cheap when you don’t have water,” Jasper said of the expense. The Del Puerto Water District serves 45,000 acres of productive farmland. “If we cannot get a sustainable, reliable source of water … we’re not going to be able to continue.”

Steward & Jasper Orchards is among the largest growers and processors in California’s rapidly expanding almond industry. Last year it processed about 40 million pounds of nuts, which was more than 2 percent of the state’s almond crop.

“We have 175 families dependent on what we’re doing here,” Jasper said, noting how his company’s growing, hulling, shelling, processing, packaging and retail operations employ lots of people.

About 70 percent of what his company produces gets exported, mostly to Japan, South Korea and Canada. Some of the company’s fruits and nuts, however, get sold in stores, like the Stewart & Jasper shop in Modesto’s McHenry Village.

But all that depends on getting enough water to the trees so they can grow a crop. Stewart & Jasper also has walnut, mandarin orange and cherry trees – but this is a sad year for cherries.

“Some of these trees have barely any fruit on them,” Asai told the 70 or so people who took the environmental tour Friday. Many of those visitors were state employees, from agencies that oversee pest management and other agriculture issues.

Asai explained how cherries and apricots are particularly sensitive to weather conditions. He noted how those trees didn’t cope well with last December’s extreme temperature shifts, when there were days it was 21 degrees at night and 75 degrees during the afternoon.

Almonds fare much better in the San Joaquin Valley’s climate. Asai said the region is perfect for almonds because it has good soil that drains well, the winters have enough chilling hours, there isn’t rain during times when the trees need to be dry and – usually – there’s enough water to produce healthy crops.

The tour led visitors into the orchards to see what’s happening to almond trees this season.

“The nut itself seems quite a bit more advanced than in a normal year,” Asai said. But while the almonds appear to be ripening faster, he said the nuts look like they’re going to be small in size. He blamed the drought.

Stewart & Jasper’s ranch manager Ray Henriques showed visitors how their orchards use micro-sprinklers at the tree base, which is where water is needed most. For their soils, he said that’s the most water-efficient system.

“Not all soil types lend themselves to drip irrigation,” Henriques explained. “It wouldn’t be the first choice here.”

Such micro-drip and micro-sprinkler systems are considered the most water-efficient, and that’s what 70 percent of California almond orchards now use, according to the Almond Board.

“Micro-irrigation does not change almonds’ overall per acre (water) needs, but instead improves targeted distribution and uniformity – thus generating more vigorous plant growth and increased crop production,” states a briefing paper distributed by the Almond Board.

That report says almond orchards on average need 3 acre-feet of water per acre to produce a viable crop, plus an additional 10 to 15 inches of rain.

Stanislaus County had more than 138,000 acres of productive almond orchards as of the U.S. Department of Agricultures’s recently released 2012 Census of Agriculture. And thousands of additional acres have been planted since.

So far this season, Stanislaus has received less than 8 inches of rain.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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