San Joaquin Valley farmers are idling thousands of acres, bulldozing hundreds of trees and shifting production of some crops out of the area as the state enters its third straight year of dry weather.
The lack of rain and snow has depleted reservoirs and reduced streams and rivers to drastically low levels. The parched conditions have forced farmers to make critical decisions about how best to use what little water they have.
The crisis spurred Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday to issue a disaster declaration, allowing state agencies to re-examine policies for how water is managed and distributed among competing interests, including the environment and agriculture. It also raises the possibility of federal relief to offset any losses.
The drought already has caused some farmers to take drastic measures by whittling the number of acres they farm. Others worry about the ripple effect the drought will have on workers and the rural communities that are dependent on the region's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.
The 2009 drought caused thousands of acres to be idled in the Valley and hundreds of workers to be laid off. Without jobs, unemployed workers filled food lines in communities like Mendota.
"We know what is coming," said Robert Silva, mayor of Mendota. "Unless farmers get the water they need, things will get ugly."
Pulling trees out
Third-generation farmer Skip Sagouspe of Firebaugh stood in a field of uprooted almond trees last week, having made the decision several months ago to tear out the trees as a water-saving step.
He farms in the Westlands Water District, which is expected to receive little to no surface water this year. District officials estimate that 200,000 acres out of 600,000 acres will not be farmed because of the shortage of water.
Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands, said he hopes the governor's declaration will help mitigate some of the drought's impacts, but it does not address the larger problem of chronic supply shortages.
He said the state must invest in new water supply infrastructure, including storage and conveyance, and fix problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where Westlands gets its water supply.
Sagouspe said he was left with few options, other than to rip out 160 acres of trees, about 10% of his total acreage. He made the decision after realizing the prospect for water was drying up. He will have to rely on the less desirable water pumped from deep wells. The brackish water is high in salts and other minerals that can be especially hard on almond trees.
The last of Sagouspe's uprooted trees were being chipped and shredded last week. "You hate to do something like this, but we had to find ways to save water," Sagouspe said. "Now after realizing we may not get any water, it was the best decision we made. We should have taken more out."
Sagouspe is not alone in taking out almonds, one of the fastest growing and lucrative crops on the west side. But without adequate surface water, even almonds, especially older trees, become easy targets for removal.
Sagouspe says one of his neighbors removed 1,200 acres of almonds and not far away a 500-acre block was taken out.
Fresno County agriculture officials say it is unlikely the region will break any crop production records this year. The county ranks as the leading farming area in the state, generating a total crop value of $6.5 billion in 2012, the latest year evaluated. But the drought is expected to put a pinch in production this year.
Les Wright, Fresno County agricultural commissioner, said the lack of water has made it difficult for ranchers to find enough natural grasses to feed their cattle.
"What is out there is probably 2 years old and does not have a lot of nutritional value," Wright said. "Cattle are being sold earlier than they normally are and at a much lighter weight."
To supplement the sparse rangeland, cattle ranchers are spending additional money on hay.
Also expected to take a hit will be the county's lettuce crop. During the spring and fall, the fields around Huron supply a majority of the head lettuce sold in the United States.
Typically, the county's fall lettuce crop ranges from 9,000 to 12,000 acres. But this fall, only 4,500 acres was planted.
"When you don't have enough in your water budget, this is what happens," Wright said.
The Clark family is fallowing about half of its 1,200 acres of row crops.
The Clarks have farmed cotton, tomatoes, garlic and onions. This year, they will put their efforts into onions, garlic and tomatoes — crops that they can irrigate with well water.
Sarah Woolf, a family member, said there is a market for crops that can be processed and sold as ingredients or spices.
"We are now getting calls from processors asking if we can grow for them," Woolf said. "The problems is we have the land, we just don't have the water."
Woolf said the higher prices that desirable crops fetch will help, but won't make up the loss in revenue from not farming their entire 1,200 acres.
"We are still paying for the same amount of land and our fixed costs are still there," Woolf said. "I don't anticipate our overall returns to be outstanding this year."
The drought has forced one Valley food processor — Olam International — to shift some of its production to other parts of the state to maintain a supply of product. The company is a major source of dehydrated garlic, onions, peppers and specialty vegetables.
A large share of its raw product is supplied by west-side farmers who are using their limited water resources on permanent crops, including nut trees and grape vines.
To offset the loss in west-side acreage, the company has contracted with growers in the Sacramento and Imperial valleys where water supplies are more plentiful.
"We are committed to California and have made a huge investment, but these dry cycles are making it tough on business," said Dave Watkins, senior vice president of Olam's agriculture operations.
"Our goal is to evaluate all our options to keep our momentum going. And we will turn over every rock to make sure we get the raw materials we need."
For some farmers, the only option for keeping their farms going is digging new water wells. In Kern County, nut and corn farmer Greg Wegis has drilled three new wells at a cost ranging from $250,000 to $300,000 apiece.
"This is going to be an expensive year to get through, but all our neighbors are going through the same thing," said Wegis, who farms 9,000 acres of almonds and pistachios. "We have too much invested in this operation to let things go."
While Wegis was able to get his wells drilled in time for this season, others are being put on a waiting list.
Well drilling up
"To say that we are busy right now is a huge understatement," said Kim Hammond, a co-owner at Arthur & Orum Well Drilling in Fresno. "We have six rigs and two crews that are running 24 hours a day."
Hammond said customers who contact their office now will have to wait until March or April for a new well.
"And it isn't that we are getting a lot of new customers. What's happening is that people are going deeper with their existing wells," Hammond said.
Deeper wells also mean higher electricity costs for pumping the water out. And it raises a concern about depleting underground resources.
"We are pumping more out, but we are not recharging the supply," Woolf said.
Sagouspe, whose family used to farm only row crops, says it is tough to remain optimistic about the future.
"I have a son who is really interested in farming and it is really sad that we just can't farm the way we used to," Sagouspe said. "It seems like it is a fight for everything — a fight against regulations, a fight against government and now a fight for water."
"We know what is coming. Unless farmers get the water they need, things will get ugly." — Robert Silva, mayor of Mendota
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, email@example.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.