California Water Shortages to Boost Some Crop Prices

By Arnoldy, Ben | The Christian Science Monitor, June 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

California Water Shortages to Boost Some Crop Prices


Arnoldy, Ben, The Christian Science Monitor


This summer, it's a triage of leaf and limb in California's water- starved Central Valley.

At Blackburn Farm in Firebaugh, workers prematurely killed one almond grove and are frantically digging new wells to save the remaining almond crop. Their neighbors are walking away from 1,600 acres of cotton to salvage tomatoes.

Water shortages in California, coupled with high fuel costs, mean customers can expect rising prices for some fruits and vegetables, particularly melons, canned tomatoes, and perhaps lettuce. The situation turns the screws on Sacramento to solve the state's decades-old water standoff between its cities, farmers, and environmentalists.

"We have wrung much of the flexibility out of the water system," says Dave Kranz, spokesman with the California Farm Bureau. "The demands are greater primarily from urban growth and redirection of water for environmental purposes."

The state is estimating crop losses of $167 million for 2008, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Several events coincided. A court reduced the water that can be moved from the flush north to the drier south in order to protect the endangered delta smelt fish. And the snow in the Sierras started strong, but stopped abruptly mid winter. Then the spring rains never came.

Ground zero is the Westlands Water District in the valley's southwest corner including Fresno County. District water managers told farmers in early spring to expect only 45 percent of their normal water allotment. Fresno County farmers left 41,000 acres out of one million acres unplanted, mostly cotton, followed by processing tomatoes, lettuce, cantaloupe, and garlic.

When the spring rains failed to appear, the District was forced to make a rare downward revision. The farmers will get only 40 percent, and even less during the hottest summer months. That's when the crops were left for dead.

"I initially reported about 2,000 acres," removed from production or abandoned, says Jerry Prieto, the Fresno County agricultural commissioner. "I've heard enough now where the numbers have probably increased to close to 8,000 to 10,000 acres, and that may continue to grow."

Earlier this month, Gov. …

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