Paramount leader: Drought forcing ground water regulations, fewer farming acres

The Fresno BeeMay 8, 2014 

A top official with Paramount Farms, the world's largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios, said California's historic drought is forcing two likely outcomes: regulation of ground water and fewer acres being farmed.

Bill Phillimore, executive vice president for the farming company giant, was the keynote speaker at the 2014 Water Technology Conference in Clovis on Thursday.

More than 100 people attended the annual conference, which focused this year on the state's three-year drought.

As the chief of Paramount's water and power issues, Phillimore said he has seen ground water regulation coming for some time. Under current California law, ground water is loosely regulated, and many farmers are leery of how it might be implemented.

Phillimore said he, too, has concerns about how regulation will work: "Are we really going to go out and meter every well in the Valley? Putting meters on wells is expensive."

Phillimore said he would instead like to see more attention paid to developing technology of how to measure water use -- information that might help check water consumption.

Across the state, farmers, including Paramount, are making difficult decisions about how to survive the drought that has dried up surface water for central San Joaquin Valley farmers. Many are heavily pumping water from the ground, causing water levels to drop in nearly every area of the state.

Valley farmers have removed thousands of acres out of production, including bulldozing hundreds of acres of almond trees. Phillimore said he expects the Valley's total farm acres to continue shrinking.

Phillimore said that while Paramount has not made a decision on whether to take any trees out, he said pulling trees may be a better answer than trying to apply less water to existing acreage.

But, he added, "on the west side, we are going to run one of the largest experiments anyone has ever run in drought management this year.

Already, Paramount has done its own research with a pistachio that has not been given water for three years. The tree survived.

"What we don't know is how long production will be interrupted," Phillimore said. "The tree may look great, but if it takes another three years to produce a crop, it isn't going to do us much good."

Phillimore is also surprised by those who say farmers aren't doing enough to conserve water.

"One of the things that always worries us is when people in Sacramento talk about water efficiency," he said. "And we think we are already there."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, brodriguez@fresnobee.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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