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For the most part, there is no water to sell as reservoirs could dry up later this year.

Todd Fitchette, Associate Editor

June 17, 2021

3 Min Read
Fresno farmer Ryan Jacobsen says water deliveries to Fresno Irrigation District agricultural users ran for just 30 days this year because of the drought. Jacobsen also chairs the Fresno Irrigation District board of directors and says while those deliveries were helpful, some Fresno County tree nut growers are simply trying to get this year's crop to harvest before having to make tough decisions this fall on whether to remove whole orchards for lack of sustainable water resources.Todd Fitchette

In drought years past, some California farmers could find irrigation water on the spot market to limp along. Not so this year.

Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive officer of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, says the water simply does not exist, and what precious few drops may exist somewhere in somebody's account, those prices are too costly for farmers to purchase. For the most part, there is no water to sell as reservoirs could dry up later this year. With the higher likelihood of long-lasting drought conditions into next year, this will be disastrous for farming across the West.

For Fresno County farmers this season, this means permanent crops will get first access to dwindling irrigation supplies as row and field crops will be first to be destroyed.

Good numbers are not yet out on the number of acres being fallowed this year in Fresno County due to the drought. Jacobsen sees the likelihood high that very few to no acres of produce will be planted this fall as produce season transitions from the Salinas Valley back to the deserts of southern California and southwest Arizona.

Related: 4,300 junior water rights holders told to stop diverting

Fresno Irrigation District will end most agricultural water deliveries on June 30, capping a season that saw just one month of surface water deliveries for the district.

"I think there's farmers just trying to get this crop to harvest," said Jacobsen of the almonds grown in Fresno County. Jacobsen farms almonds and wine grapes south of Fresno.

Further north, Butte County growers are faring a little better, with walnuts, almonds, and rice as the leading crops in that northern California region.

Growers tap groundwater

As water curtailments to Central Valley Project contractors spread to agricultural users in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, growers are tapping available groundwater resources. According to Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, agricultural wells in her county seem to be holding out for the time being. Neighboring Glenn County implemented a drought emergency, she said, paving the way for possible financial assistance to address domestic well issues in that region.

Related: Agencies escalate drought measures as hot summer looms

Rice acreage in Butte County and elsewhere across northern California is down about 20 percent from a good year, according to Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission. Rice acreage across the state is projected to be at 400,000 acres, off from the 500,000 the industry can typically see in a good year.

"All intent is to carry this crop through to harvest," Morris said, noting that water availability through the rest of the summer will be key to these decisions.

Come fall, however, the water for rice straw decomposition will not be available, Cecil says. She and others are working with the local air districts to allow eligible growers to burn rice straw. Growers with certified disease issues can burn up to 25% of their acreage, but Butte County growers in recent years have burned less than 10% of their fields because of weather conditions and air district caps on how many fields can be burned a day in the Sacramento Valley.

Morris added that the drought will impact the wildlife that relies upon the managed rice fields for water. Waterfowl, raptors, reptiles, and mammals make their homes in and around these irrigated rice fields. With fewer irrigated rice acres and fewer acres of standing water for these animals, wildlife concentrations may be up in those areas where water is available.

About the Author(s)

Todd Fitchette

Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

Todd Fitchette, associate editor with Western Farm Press, spent much of his journalism career covering agriculture in California and the western United States. Aside from reporting about issues related to farm production, environmental regulations and legislative matters, he has extensive experience covering the dairy industry, western water issues and politics. His journalistic experience includes local daily and weekly newspapers, where he was recognized early in his career as an award-winning news photographer.

Fitchette is US Army veteran and a graduate of California State University, Chico. 

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