Ag, water leaders discuss how to keep taps flowing

The prospect of a dry 2008 is just one of the threats facing farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, experts said at a Modesto forum Tuesday.

Another threat is legal -- a possible reduction in West Side water deliveries so more can be used to sustain fish. And another threat is seismic -- the chance that an earthquake could shatter the delta levees that keep seawater from mixing with the state's main fresh supply.

"It seems like we move from crisis to crisis over there on the West Side," said Bill Harrison, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, which irrigates about 40,000 acres in that area.

The forum, held by the Almond Board of California, drew about 100 people to the State Theatre. It dealt not just with the water needs of almonds, the second-highest-grossing farm product in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but with the state's agriculture overall.

Winter and spring were relatively dry, leaving reservoirs with less carryover than in most recent years. Should 2008 be dry, too, that could mean cutbacks in the supply for farmers and other users.

The outlook is somewhat brighter on the region's east side. Its water suppliers, including the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, are not vulnerable to the severe cuts that the state and federal governments could order for water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

How can growers respond to cuts?

Much of the valley and Southern California rely on the delta. The deliveries already have been curtailed to protect smelt and other fish. The next year could bring not just drought, but a court order for further cuts to protect smelt.

Some growers could get by with wells or water purchased from elsewhere. Those who grow an-nual crops could leave some of their land fallow. Growers of almonds and other permanent crops could maintain the plantings with somewhat reduced water, but a severe cutback could mean dead orchards.

Earl Perez, who grows several crops in the Crows Landing area, said the state should be adding, rather than curtailing, water supplies.

"I think we need to develop some new surface storage, and it has to be some kind of long-term vision, which I don't think the Legislature has taken," he said.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition in Sacramento, said the state's water systems were designed to serve 20 million people but now are stretched among nearly twice that.

The delta, the linchpin of it all, could fail all at once if one of the two faults beneath it ruptures, said Brent Walthall, assistant general manager of the Kern County Water Agency.

"In one day, you would have a delta that was so salty that it was no longer suitable for urban or agricultural use," he said.

Despite the ominous mood, panelists said Gov. Schwarzenegger and other leaders seem to see the need for delta fixes and other water projects.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.