For Valley citrus growers, this season has 2 natural disasters

The Fresno BeeMarch 1, 2014 

TERRA BELLA — Grower Brent Doyel held up a shriveled minneola — evidence from the first of two natural disasters at his citrus orchards this season.

A killing freeze in December blasted his minneolas, which are sweet, juicy tangerine hybrids. Then, the second disaster struck. For most of December and January following the freeze, there was no rain.

Now in the grip of an epic dry season, Doyel and his trees face spring and summer with no water from the San Joaquin River — their only source for irrigation.

"We've never had zero water," said Doyel, 49, a second-generation farmer here. "We can deal with a freeze. We can deal with water cuts. But without any water, it's hard to keep trees alive."

There is a financial steamroller headed toward hundreds of 10-acre farms along the rolling Tulare County hills around here. The first-year drought damage alone is estimated to be up to $59 million for Terra Bella growers.

Over five years, as dead trees are replaced and production slowly comes back for 7,000 acres of citrus, the toll could exceed $230 million, according to the Terra Bella Irrigation District.

And this is just a small corner of agriculture along the San Joaquin Valley's east side. Growers on 1 million acres are forecast to get zero water from the San Joaquin this year.

People will lose jobs and homes. Some growers might be forced out — a common refrain throughout the drought-scarred Valley. But the misery might be just a little worse in this enclave south of Porterville.

On many other farms throughout the Valley, growers can choose not to water tomatoes, onions, alfalfa or other annual plantings. Without river water, they'll use their well water to protect bigger investments in permanent crops, such as almonds and vineyards.

But Terra Bella farmers don't have many annual plantings. They grow trees, mostly citrus, olives and pistachios. Worse, only a small amount of well water is available, not enough to support even a fraction of the agriculture here. Terra Bella doesn't have adequate wells.

With no well water and no river water, the 600 growers have no wiggle room. In all, more than 9,000 acres of productive trees face a serious risk of dying this summer.

"We can get along with 25% of our allotment," said Sean Geivet, general manager of Terra Bella Irrigation District. "We could probably get by at 10%, just keeping trees alive. The problem comes at zero."

Terra Bella's growers have relied on federal water from Millerton Lake since the 1950s. So has the town of Terra Bella, a Latino-dominated community of 3,500.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs Millerton, will provide water for the people. But growers probably are out of luck, even if there is average rain and snow for the next month.

That's also true for nearly 3 million acres of farmland throughout the Valley served by the federal Central Valley Project.

Terra Bella growers are among the 15,000 on the Valley's east side represented by the Friant Water Authority, which covers 1 million acres. In six decades, Friant growers from southern Merced County to Kern County have never faced a zero allocation.

Walking through his Terra Bella orchard, citrus grower Geoff Galloway, 38, says the late February rain will help. His trees, which are several weeks ahead of schedule because of warm weather, already are getting ready to blossom.

"But we need more water in the next few months or the fruit won't set," he said. "Without water later on, the financial problems will impact everyone from the growers to the consumers."

Terra Bella is no stranger to hard times. In the 1930s, before the federal project was built, nearby groundwater wells just couldn't produce enough water to keep orchards going. Many lost their land.

But locals knew Terra Bella was a prime citrus spot. The area was a little warmer than many locations in the region, meaning the fruit could be harvested a little early for the Christmas season.

The Terra Bella Irrigation District had formed in 1915 to deliver the groundwater from the nearby wells. When landowners couldn't make ends meet, they deeded their property to the district.

The federal government later began talking about building Friant Dam to cope with similar problems along the Valley's east side.

The dam was built in the 1940s, and the Terra Bella district board in 1950 approved a federal contract for 29,000 acre-feet of San Joaquin water annually. For perspective, one acre-foot supplies an average Valley family for 12 to 18 months.

Terra Bella growers returned, ready to cope with drought. They survived the 1987 to 1992 drought. Their worst year had been 1977, when the district received 25% of its allotment, but growers made it through that time, Geivet said.

This season, citrus harvest will financially float them through the year, even after the freeze, growers said.

The damage from a zero water allocation won't be felt until next year and the following years, as growers replace dead and unproductive trees, Geivet said.

He and other water district leaders across the Valley hope late-season rain and snow will ease the blow. Perhaps enough water can be captured to save some trees.

"We're not asking a lot," Geivet said. "We have a lot invested."

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, mgrossi@fresnobee.com or @markgrossi on Twitter.

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