Citrus growers, legislators push for putting water bond on ballot

Standing near a water-starved citrus grove in east Fresno County, farmers, legislators and agriculture leaders on Tuesday urged public support for a multibillion-dollar water bond to build new reservoirs.

Agriculture officials say that without more above-ground water storage, California will continue to suffer from extremely dry years like this one.

"For me, the goal is to create net new water," said Assembly Member Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. "We need a way to grab wet-year runoff and store it for later use."

Slated to be on the Nov. 4 ballot is an $11.1 billion bond measure that was drafted in 2009. The proposal calls for water storage, water recycling, groundwater protection and restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

State legislators, however, are trying to substitute the current measure with a slimmed-down version that spends less, but still provides money for water storage. It's unclear if the Legislature will accomplish that in time for the November election.

Patterson said he will support any bond that has money for water storage, a way to connect federal and state water projects and protects landowners' water rights.

Patterson was joined Tuesday at Harlan Ranch's citrus grove by Republican Assembly Members Connie Conway of Tulare and Frank Bigelow of O'Neals. Also present was state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, whose district includes eastern Madera and Fresno counties; Kevin Severns, chairman of California Citrus Mutual; and Alyssa Houtby, spokeswoman for California Citrus Mutual.

Farmer Shawn Stevenson pointed to evidence of the drought's impact at Harlan Ranch on Tuesday: Thousands of citrus trees were being removed because of a lack of water.

"Without a more stable water supply, this is the future," said Stevenson, pointing as a bulldozer tore through one tree after another. "It is imperative that we have more surface water."

This year, a lack of water deliveries to central San Joaquin Valley farmers has caused growers to fallow thousands of acres.

Citrus industry officials estimate that at least 50,000 acres of citrus are without surface water and are at risk of being removed.

Stevenson said Harlan Ranch has removed about 400 acres of citrus trees in the last two years because of a lack of water. He's also laid off four workers as a result.

Stevenson's daughter, Caroline, watched as the bulldozer ripped through the 30-year-old grove. She fondly remembered riding her dirt bike through the trees or swimming in a nearby pond that is now bone dry.

"It is devastating," said Caroline Stevenson, who is attending Fresno Pacific University. "And it is not just because we are losing trees that were producing food, but we are losing jobs and it's affecting people's lives. That is what is so sad."