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Sunday, April 25, 2010

California's Fields, Parched by Drought and Conservation Rules, Will Get More Water

RIVERDALE, Calif.—There's a trickle of new hope in California's drought-stricken farm economy, as water agencies open irrigation spigots a little more this year, allowing farmers to increase planting and hiring.

After abundant winter rains this year, state and federal officials are increasing water allocations to farmers in California's semi-arid Central Valley. While flows are still far below normal, the increases are a welcome respite for local economies, where unemployment reached above 40% in some towns in which farmers stopped planting during a three-year drought.

Harris Farms, a family-owned agribusiness in Coalinga, Calif., expects to increase production of lettuce, tomatoes and other crops about 7% to 7,000 acres from 6,500 in 2009, said John Harris, the company's chief executive officer. Harris expects to hire 1,800 seasonal workers this year, up 29% from 2009, he said.

Lettuce, in particular, is a water-dependent and labor-intensive crop, he said. "Every drop of water we get does employ people," Mr. Harris said. "We are glad right now to get anything we can."

Thanks to the additional water and factors including higher prices and reduced competition from other crops, the state's cotton growers, mostly in the Central Valley, expect to plant 58% more acres this year than in 2009, the most cotton acreage since 2007, according to the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations.

The additional cotton acreage will raise employment at the state's cotton gins to about 700 this year from 600 in 2009, with hundreds more workers expected to be hired in the fields, said Earl Williams, president and chief executive officer of the trade group in Fresno, Calif.

Home to some of the most productive farmland in the nation, the Central Valley has been hit by a triple whammy of recession, drought and federal environmental rulings that have sharply constricted the flow of water through California's network of aqueducts.

Farmers have been hurt the most south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where federal water officials in the last two years have cut allocations to between almost zero and 5% of normal for many farmers—and cut water altogether from some. The Westlands Water District's 700 farmers idled about 250,000 of their 600,000 acres last year.

The Central Valley is still reeling from some of the highest unemployment in California, with a jobless rate of 18.5% in Fresno County in February, compared with 12.8% statewide, according to state estimates. One of the hardest-hit farming towns, Mendota, had a jobless rate of 45% in February.

This winter brought California its biggest snowpack since 2006, partially refilling depleted reservoirs. The Interior Department this month increased water allocations to 30% of normal for users with the least amount of water rights, such as in the Westlands district, up from 25% in March and 5% or less earlier this year.

The California Department of Water Resources upped the water allocations it expects to give cities and farms this year to 20% of normal from 5%. That allocation could increase if California gets much more precipitation, agency officials say.

"It's good news, but the problem is not over by any means," said Richard Howitt, a professor of agriculture economics at the University of California at Davis. Water will remain scarce south of the delta for the foreseeable future, because of the environmental restrictions, he said.

Environmentalists say Central Valley farmers often misuse water—for example, by planting water-intensive crops such as rice and by not applying proper conservation techniques. Many farmers say they stress conservation.

Still, even the partially restored flow is having a ripple effect on businesses that serve farms. Ayala Corp., which provides contract labor to farms, expects to add 500 to 800 seasonal workers to its current force of about 2,000 over the next few months, said Piedad Ayala, owner of the Riverdale firm. "If we didn't get this, I don't know how we'd survive," Mr. Ayala said of the increased water flow.

Among his workers, the water influx is some rare good news. "It's not my style to ask for food stamps, but that's what I was looking at," said Edward Solorio, 42 years old. The father of three, who had lost another part-time farming job, said he now expected to help harvest onions and tomatoes that wouldn't have been planted before.

Carlos Quintanar, a field-crew supervisor, said the new water means he won't be leaving the area to seek farm work in Arizona this summer, as he had planned after watching his annual income shrivel to under $20,000 over the past three years from $60,000 a year. He says he expects to pick up enough new work to boost his income to about $25,000 this year. "If there's work here, I'd rather stay here," said the father of two from Fresno as his crew of seven planted tomatoes from the back of a tractor.

Local merchants expect a trickle-down effect. In Riverdale, a town of about 2,500 with boarded-up storefronts, managers at Brown's Diesel said they expecetd a pickup in work this year as more people had money to repair trucks and other equipment on which they have deferred maintenance.

"Because of the extra water," said Bunny Brown, who does books for the business run by her sons, "people can grow the crops and the whole wheel turns."

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 8:56 PM

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