State officials hear Valley drought pleas

03/04/2014 12:40 PM

05/02/2014 3:52 PM

Farmers and their allies pleaded with state officials Tuesday for quick action on the drought emergency and long-term solutions to keep it from happening again.

More than 200 people packed a University of California at Merced conference room for a meeting of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Drought Task Force and the State Board of Food and Agriculture.

“Your decisions will have a long and lasting effect on the local, regional and state economy,” said Aldo Sansoni, who grows almonds, tomatoes and other crops in Merced County.

Speakers warned that the drought, now in its third and by far worst year, could put many people out of work. “You have farmworkers right now, who feed the nation and world, and they’re in bread lines out in Mendota,” said Javier Guzman, a retired farmworker from Fresno. “This is very shameful.”

Members of the task force are traveling around the state to learn how communities are coping with the effects of the drought. It includes top officials involved with agriculture, water supplies, public health and other issues. The meeting came on the heels of President Barack Obama’s visit to Merced County on Feb. 14 to address the water shortage.

The drought has forced irrigation cuts of varying severity in the San Joaquin Valley. The state and federal water systems plan to deliver zero water to most farmers this year. The Merced Irrigation District could run out of reservoir water this year, and the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts are striving for a small carryover for 2015.

Farmers are increasing their use of wells, if they have them, and could skip some annual crops so orchards and vineyards can get water.

“This is a lot more desperate than a lot of us realize,” said Laurian Bettencourt, a dairy farmer near Gustine. He said his groundwater is adequate but water district rules keep him from selling to orchard owners just outside the boundary.

The drought is forcing well pumping that could worsen the land subsidence problem in parts of Merced County, said Jean Okuye, a Livingston-area almond grower and president of the county Farm Bureau. She urged wastewater recycling and other measures to keep farms in production.

“If we destroy all of this, we will have nothing,” Okuye said. “We will be a dust bowl.”

Ron Macedo, an almond grower and chairman of the Turlock Irrigation District board, said TID has cut allotments to farmers by about 40 percent and will work to reduce canal spills and other waste. “Hopefully, it’s going to get us through this year all right,” he said.

Bill Harp, a Kern County almond grower, said yields will drop in orchards where water is extremely short, but others can get by if the reduced irrigation is timed right. He also noted the ripple effect from almonds, the state’s top farm export.

“The almond industry creates jobs, not only in farm operations but also as the crop moves down the supply chain,” Harp said.

He urged state officials to increase the capacity for recharging aquifers during wet years.

Labor advocates said farmworkers, most of whom emigrated from Mexico illegally in search of better lives, face a shortage of work in the months ahead. “Those impacts are huge for the small, rural towns we deal with,” said Marco Lizarraga, executive director of La Cooperativa Campesina de California, based in Sacramento.

Even with adequate water, farmworkers deal with low pay, poor housing and other problems, said Ilene Jacobs, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, based in Oakland. “We know that these conditions are exacerbated by a drought,” she said. “They’re exacerbated by any disaster.”

Jacobs said the state will need to help out-of-work farmworkers through food banks, utility bill assistance and protection against eviction or forcelosure. A bill signed by Brown last week includes some of this, along with emergency water projects.

The snowpack stood at 39 percent of average in the central Sierra Nevada and 33 percent statewide Tuesday, the California Department of Water Resources reported. The recent storms, while welcome, will not nearly make up for a bone-dry stretch that started in early December.

When the rain did come last month, as much as 25,000 cubic feet per second of river runoff went out to sea rather than being stored, said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. “Do you know how many acres we could have kept in production?” he asked.

The authority represents 29 water suppliers from Tracy to Kern County, plus parts of San Benito and Santa Clara counties. Nelson said at least half of the 1.1 million total acres will not grow crops this year.

Task force member Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said some of the precious river water will have to be released to keep ocean water from intruding into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. If that were not done, she said, salt would contaminate Delta water that is pumped to many farms and city users.

Task force member John Laird, the governor’s natural resources secretary, said the recent storms have lulled people into thinking the drought has eased. “It has brought us up to the level of the worst previous drought on record, in 1977,” he said.

Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said the state will work to get unemployment benefits, food and other services for the farmworkers who lose jobs. She also said climate change has made such disasters more likely.

“Droughts will happen, and we must be prepared every time,” Ross said.

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