Record-setting drought hits Orange Cove harder

Posted by Mark Grossi on February 4, 2014 

Orange Cove relies on water delivered through the Friant-Kern Canal.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — Craig Kohlruss

 ORANGE COVE — The lawns will turn brown here this summer. The police department will write you a ticket if you use your sprinklers here.

The record-setting drought will hit Orange Cove like few other places in the San Joaquin Valley, mainly because river water is the only source for folks. It is going to be a dry, cruel summer for more than one reason.

There’s another bitter pill waiting for Orange Cove — a rate hike to help pay for water meters. The water bill probably will go up about $4 a month.

Customers on the federal Central Valley Project at Millerton Lake are required to have metered water. The requirement was a major factor in Fresno’s move to meters.

“The meters have been coming for a while,” said city manager Sam Escobar. “We have been planning to raise rates for the meters. It’s unfortunate that we have this drought.”

It helps to know a little more about the setting.

Orange Cove, population 10,000 in east Fresno County, is a typical slice of the rural Valley in many ways, including businesses, neighborhoods and high school. It is mostly Latino, relying on farming for jobs.

Like many small Valley cities, it has contaminated wells. But many communities get by with their wells. Orange Cove's are just too contaminated by nitrates, chemicals from fertilizers, sewage treatment, septic systems and decaying plants.

But skirting the east side of the city is massive Friant-Kern Canal, which runs 151 miles from Friant Dam down to Kern County. As a key instrument in the east Valley's nearly $2 billion economy, the canal carries several thousand acre-feet of water in one day.

One acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, or about an 18-month supply for an average Valley family.

Escobar says Orange Cove uses 1,800 to 2,000 acre-feet per year — an slug of water that might pass by the city in a day or so during the peak irrigating season in an average year.

But this is no average year. Most irrigation districts are expecting a zero allocation from the federal government this month.

Even with with average rain and snow totals over the next eight weeks, the spring snowmelt won’t stretch very far this summer.

But last week, the federal Bureau of Reclamation shut down the river restoration water releases from Friant Dam. It makes water available to Orange Cove and other small communities, including Lindsay, Strathmore and Terra Bella.

The remaining big question now is about money. I have heard numbers up to $600 an acre-foot, which is several times higher than the usual prices.

Orange Cove could wind up spending more than $500,000 for this desperately needed water.

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