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Serving: West

Heat, drought, wildfires: Summer singes the West

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Firebaugh, Calif., grower Joe Del Bosque has had to let go of asparagus and melon crops because of a lack of water.
Farmers already forced to abandon crops as more water restrictions loom.

When Firebaugh, Calif., grower Joe Del Bosque decided this spring to forego planting asparagus because of a lack of water, he was giving up on a field that still had five years of productivity left, he said.

Del Bosque was hoping to save his melon crop through water transfers. But as the summer progressed and there was very little water available for the spot market, he had to let some of his melon acreage go, too.

He said the asparagus decision had already forced him to cut one-third of his staff.

“This is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in a long time,” he said“Seventy people are going to lose their jobs here. Next year, there will be no harvest here. Those 70 people lose two months of work. It’s a very difficult hit for them.”

Related: Extreme heat challenging West Coast crops

Del Bosque was one of three growers who explained their plight in videos released Monday, July 12, by Western Growers, as heat and drought have forced California officials to escalate water-saving measures they had planned for 2022 if conditions didn't improve. Only 20% of the runoff expected from January’s snowpack made it into reservoirs.

The lack of water isn't just claiming annual crops such as melons and vegetables, but trees, too.

“Around this time of year we’d normally be prepping for harvest,” said Ross Franson of Woolf Farming, who started knocking down almond trees in a 400-acre orchard. “But due to the dire drought that’s going on in the state of California right now, we made the decision to pull these trees out simply because we didn’t have the water to irrigate them.”

“These trees are all dead, and they shouldn’t be,” said Jared Plumlee of Booth Ranches, which produces citrus in Orange Cove, Calif., and destroyed 70 acres of trees as a result of the drought. “It’s just a shame. This block had probably 20 years of productive life, and we were forced to push it out.”

No water, no crops

Western Growers posted the videos as part of a campaign titled "No Water = No Crops," warning that the regulatory uncertainty of water deliveries to farms is jeopardizing the future of agriculture in California and threatens to change the state’s landscape in fundamental ways. 

“Is that really what you want?" Western Growers CEO Dave Puglia said in a message to state water regulators. "Do you want a bunch of dust blowing through the center of the state interrupted by fields of solar panels, which don’t employ many people?”

“It is a question that needs to be posed to Californians, generally, and their political leaders. Is that what you want? Because that is the path you are on.”

The campaign comes as record heat and drought have combined with an early start of wildfire season to present myriad challenges throughout the West. Over the weekend, the region saw its second major heat wave in a couple of weeks, as temperatures reached 114 degrees in Redding, Calif., and Fresno, 113 in Sacramento, 99 in Pendleton, Ore., and 98 in Wenatchee, Wash., according to the National Weather Service.

Related: Agencies escalate drought measures as hot summer looms

The heat is making matters worse as nearly the entire West is in drought, with extreme to exceptional drought extending through much of the Southwest, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In California, the 2021 water year for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Basin is currently the driest since 1977, prompting state water officials to begin curtailing diversions for many water rights holders.

The extreme heat has dried out many crops, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In Siskiyou, Trinity, and Modoc counties in California, alfalfa fields showed dried down splotches from pests or disease, NASS reported. Rangeland and non-irrigated pasture are in poor to very poor condition, and some ranchers have been trucking in water to replenish drying foothill stock ponds, according to the agency.

The hot, dry afternoons have presented a challenge for melon growers, who are also dealing with shortages in labor, truck drivers and supplies, the California Farm Bureau observes.

The weather has also made it more difficult for firefighters battling several wildfires in the West, as the air is so dry that much of the water dropped by aircraft to quell the flames evaporates before it reaches the ground, the BBC reported.

The largest wildfire in California — the Beckwourth Complex — was raging through mostly timber along the Nevada state line and had burned about 134 square miles as of Monday morning, according to The Associated Press. In Oregon, the Bootleg Fire has burned 224 square miles of heavy timber in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, near Sprague River in Klamath County, the AP reports. Wildfires are also burning in Washington, Idaho and Arizona.

New heat protection rules

In response to the heat waves, Washington and Oregon recently issued new heat-protection rules for farmworkers and other outdoor workers. The rules are similar to those in California, which focuses on four areas:

Plan – Develop and implement an effective written heat illness prevention plan that includes emergency response procedures.

Training – Train all employees and supervisors on heat illness prevention.

Water – Provide drinking water that is fresh, pure, suitably cool and free of charge so that each worker can drink at least 1 quart per hour, and encourage workers to do so.

Shade – Provide shade when workers request it and when temperatures exceed 80 degrees. Encourage workers to take a cool-down rest in the shade for at least five minutes. They should not wait until they feel sick to cool down.

While the West is expected to get a bit of a respite from the heat later this week, the federal Climate Prediction Center sees a greater-than-average chance of above-average temperatures lingering throughout the region for the remainder of the summer.

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