Water shortage costs Valley county $73m

A Valley agriculture official says this year's water shortage already has cost the county $73 million.

Most of that loss is from crops not planted. The figure could rise dramatically as farmers abandon crops because they do not have enough water to keep them alive, officials said.

In recent days, the drought has cost at least 56 jobs on west-side farms and at least one farmer has begun to plow under some of the cantaloupes he had planted. It's expected job losses will run into the hundreds.

The bad news came Friday at a special meeting of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, which declared an emergency and called on President Bush and Gov. Schwarzenegger to follow suit.

Separately, Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Jerry Prieto Jr. sought a declaration of emergency from the state Office of Emergency Services due to the farm losses. He said his office documented 41,000 acres that were not planted.

In addition, he said, the 170,000 acres of range land on the west side of the county will be half as productive as normal because of dry conditions.

Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, said farmers idled 200,000 acres in the district months ago because of a court ruling that cut water deliveries because of concerns about threatened fish populations.

Woolf said that at least 10,000 of the 311,000 acres that were planted this year will be abandoned. She has begun surveying growers about their expected losses and anticipates the numbers will rise.

Jose Antonio Ramirez, Firebaugh's city manager, said two farms, which he declined to identify, in his area in recent days have given out pink slips to 56 workers. He said one farmer, unable to supply enough water, plowed under some of his cantaloupe plants.

Westlands officials say millions of dollars worth of tomatoes, melons, onions and other produce are at risk of being abandoned and plowed under because there isn't enough water to sustain them.

Supervisor Phil Larson, who represents much of the west side, said a declaration by the governor could allow growers to pump ground water into the California Aqueduct. By blending ground water with aqueduct water, its salinity would be cut. Certain crops -- notably almonds, the most prevalent permanent crop on the west side -- do not tolerate salty water.

Woolf said the aqueduct now has water only from the San Luis Reservoir, which draws from the Delta. Current rules do not permit the addition of water from other sources. Larson said the declaration would last only 90 days.

Farmers in Westlands have initiated their own rationing plan on top of federal cutbacks, and Larson said the small amount of water they will be able to pump in the next three months will not be enough to finish crops that could include cotton and processing tomatoes.

He said that could bring significant cutbacks at cotton gins and at tomato processing plants. "Farmworkers -- and their children -- will be leaving the area," Larson said. That means lower attendance and lost school funding from the state, he said.

Supervisor Judy Case, the other west-side representative, said the effects of the drought are certain to ripple across the county. She said effects could be nationwide, given the region's role as a national leader in lettuce.

Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez said his east-side city, which gets Central Valley Project water, has had its water deliveries cut by 25%. "We were already conserving 50% of our water," he said. "Today it is on the west side, tomorrow it will be on the east side. We are one family. Let's all speak loud and clear."

The meeting drew government representatives from about a dozen county cities.

Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham said conservation of water alone is not going to solve the problems California is facing this year, "nor can it alleviate the need for a long-term solution to the state's broken water system."

In a written statement, Laura Harnish, California's regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, praised the governor's "call for increased conservation, regional coordination and especially for encouraging the transfer of water supplies from willing sellers."

But Harnish said her group is concerned the governor could declare a state of emergency that would relax environmental protections.

"The governor seems to be setting the stage to resurrect the endless dam and bond debate amid this climate of fear of water shortages," she said. "Buying an overpriced water project during a drought is a bit like going grocery shopping when you are hungry."