The disconcerting rumble of bulldozer engines and snapping tree limbs has replaced the harmonious sounds of orchard tractors in some San Joaquin Valley citrus groves, as unprecedented water shortages force farmers into difficult decisions. Some farmers have decided to bulldoze groves; others will pay many times the usual price for water, in some cases just enough water to keep their trees alive.
In the prime citrus-growing region of Terra Bella, which is nestled just below the foothills in eastern Tulare County, growers face the harsh reality that they will have access to none of their federal contract water—the first time this has happened since the Terra Bella Irrigation District was formed more than 60 years ago.
“This is the worst we’ve ever seen it,” said citrus grower Matt Fisher of Terra Bella. “My dad has been doing this for about 40 years and he has never seen it this bad. He has a cousin who has been farming for almost 50 years and it is the same story. They both said this is far and away the most difficult year they have ever seen in our business.”
Fisher has decided to purchase enough water to produce a crop this year, but he had to pay 10 times the amount he normally spends each year on irrigating his groves.
“I am fortunate because TBID has secured a bunch of emergency water for us at $1,200 an acre-foot,” Fisher said. “If we didn’t have that, we would have no water and our trees would die. It is incredibly expensive, but we will be able to grow a crop with that and I am hopeful that we can make it one more year. Next year if we get no water, I will not be able to do that again.”
In a complex water swap that involved several agencies, the Terra Bella Irrigation District secured 5,400 acre-feet of emergency water, about half of the district’s normal allocation for use by its 600 farmers.
“Even though we got zero water from the government, we have been able to go out and get some water at very high prices to secure a supply of water to keep trees alive,” TBID General Manager Sean Geivet said.
While a few growers did as Fisher did by purchasing enough water to produce a crop, others bought just enough to keep their trees alive, and still others have elected to push out groves to make water available for their more productive trees.
Ed Chambers, who manages groves from Exeter to Kern County, including two in Terra Bella, said he spent $38,000 to purchase enough water to produce a crop from one 30-acre citrus grove. He said he also plans to push out a 100-year-old Valencia orange grove once he receives the go-ahead from the estate that owns the property.
“It has made money, but it is not a super-profitable grove. The owners and I have decided that in this situation, there is no future in buying $1,200 an acre-foot water to keep it alive when we can’t get enough to make a crop anyway,” he said.
At a news conference in Kern County last Friday, public officials and farm-group leaders watched as a citrus grove owned by John Gless was pushed out by bulldozers because Gless does not have the water needed to keep the trees alive.
Gless, who grows citrus in Kern and Riverside counties, made the difficult decision to push out 60 acres of 12-year-old Valencia trees that had been budded over to a seedless variety two years ago.
He said that comparing his available water with the amount of water needed for irrigation, it was clear there was not enough to go around. Without adequate water, the trees would die or suffer such a setback they would never recover enough to produce a good crop, he said.
“You can’t stress citrus for water this time of year when they are setting a crop,” Gless said.
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said the organization has identified approximately 50,000 acres of citrus trees that are vulnerable because of the lack of surface water.
“They didn’t have wells for a couple reasons. One, they don’t sit on an aquifer, or two, they have never needed to have groundwater in the past because they have always had plenty of surface water being provided by their irrigation districts,” Nelsen said.
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation initially announced that no water would be available for farmers in the Friant Unit of the Central Valley Project, it said it would re-evaluate later in the season. Heavy rains that fell on the state in March fueled growers’ hopes that some water would be provided through the federal project.
“Nobody was going to be made whole; we are in a drought and everyone understands that. But since it rained so much in March, there was more than 1.2 million acre-feet of additional water placed in storage, some of which everyone believed could have been made available to south-of-the-delta producers,” Nelsen said. “But the Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service decided that they needed to hold onto the water for a variety of reasons.”
He pointed to the “unbalanced policy which favors fish over the production of food and fiber” for worsening water shortages.
“We aren’t trying to take water away from the environment; we aren’t trying to take water away from the fish. But there has to be a balanced approach,” Nelsen said.