Feds reduce water to Valley farms

LOS BANOS -- Federal officials told hundreds of farmers in the Westlands Water District on Monday that they will get even less irrigation water -- just days after the district announced a rationing plan.

Farmers in the nation's largest federal water district will be hit hard -- many said they expect to abandon crops or even go out of business for lack of water.

Two members of Congress and district officials urged Gov. Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency.

"Half the people in this room are going to go broke," Tom Birmingham, Westlands general manger, said at a meeting that drew about 400 to the fairgrounds in Los Banos. "This is a crisis that has to be fixed now."

The crisis was blamed on a court ruling and a dry spring.

The ruling -- capping a series of decisions that farmers opposed -- came in April. U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno ordered reduced deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is the source for Westlands water, to protect threatened fish.

The dry spring became apparent when rainfall in March, April and May fell far below average, said Ron Milligan, operations manager for the Central Valley Project, run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Rainfall was 3.5 inches over the three months, the lowest since 1924, he said.

In anticipation of the water crisis, Westlands on Friday established a rationing plan that cut irrigation supplies by about one-third for June, July and August -- the hottest summer months.

On Monday, confirming a move that district officials had forecast Friday, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that water allocations from the delta are being cut to 40% from 45%.

Westlands, which covers 600,000 acres, accounts for $1 billion in farm production, 20% of the total for the No. 1 farm county in the nation, Fresno County.

"Something has been unleashed that we can't get our arms around," said Mike Houlding, a Cantua Creek grower. He said the sharp reduction in water supplies comes on top of skyrocketing fertilizer and fuel costs.

As early as this week, some farmers in Westlands could begin making decisions on which crops to abandon, said Sarah Woolf, a Westlands spokeswoman. She said she will begin surveying growers this week to see how their water needs match what is available.

Several speakers -- starting with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who convened the briefing -- characterized the crisis as "the perfect storm," a convergence of extremely dry weather and court-ordered cutbacks.

"Maybe this is the crisis that is necessary to get decisions that are needed in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.," he said. He and Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, who also participated in the briefing, have long called for more water storage.

Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson said the crisis is certain to go beyond farms. He said it will affect small businesses that rely on farming. "There are many jobs at stake," he said.

Milligan said the Bureau of Reclamation will ask the State Water Quality Control Board to adjust standards to allow more ground water to be pumped into the delta.

The Metropolitan Water District, which serves Southern California, also has found its supplies strained by a drought that cut back supplies from the Colorado River. But that district has built storage facilities that give it enough water to cover needed supplies for two years, reclamation officials said. They said they are talking with MWD officials to see whether they will agree to reduce the amount of water they get from the delta.

"Their day of reckoning is coming, too," said John Davis, the bureau's deputy regional director.

Milligan said he asked all districts that draw from the delta -- including the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority, which includes Westlands and 30 other districts -- to provide revised schedules for the amount of water they need.

Although farmers and water district leaders pressed for specifics on how much water the bureau would be able to deliver, none of the officials could give a specific number. Woolf, the spokeswoman for the district, said not knowing will make it hard to make decisions on what crops to keep.

Mark Borba, a Riverdale grower, said Schwarzenegger "needs to be more forceful. He needs to be The Terminator. He has to quit making it like Jello."

California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura defended the governor's championing of more water storage and repairs to the water delivery system in the state, but he stopped short of pledging that the governor would declare a state of emergency.