Image: Shawn Coburn, Juan Guadian
Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP file
Shawn Coburn, left, and Juan Guadian inspect an almond orchard in Mendota, Calif., on Dec. 10, 2008.
updated 1/23/2009 10:08:14 AM ET 2009-01-23T15:08:14

Some of the nation's largest farms plan to cut back on planting this spring over concerns that federal water supplies will dry up as officials deal with the drought plaguing California.

Farmers in the Central Valley said Thursday they would forego planting thousands of acres of water-thirsty canning tomatoes and already have started slashing acreage for lettuce and melons.

As growers in Fresno and Kings counties prepared to sow their dry fields with tomato seeds this week, the giant water district that supplies the irrigation for their sprinklers warned them to think again.

Computer models of the state's parched reservoirs and this year's patchy snowfall showed shortages so extreme that federal officials could slash supplies down to zero, managers at the Westlands Water District told their members in an emergency conference call.

"We thought it was important to talk to our growers so they can make important planting decisions," said Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for Westlands, the coalition of giant agribusinesses in the state's fertile interior.

Too late?
Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Water Resources plan to announce next month how much water they'll speed to farms and cities.

But farmers say that's too late, since they need to decide what to plant now, as they negotiate with banks for crop loans. Growers who are struggling to revive shriveled vines and dying trees say they're panicked at the thought of having to solely rely on well water of dubious quality.

"It's ugly," said Shawn Coburn, who grows 1,000 acres of almonds in Fresno County. "I've heard from probably eight to 10 guys whose lines of credit are frozen until they can show they have water."

Coburn said he is abandoning tomatoes and will use his brackish well water to try to keep vineyards and almond orchards alive. Other growers are choosing instead to let their nut trees go dormant, which has meant less work for the beekeepers who travel to central California each year to pollinate orchards.

Desperate times
Farmers' decisions to fallow thousands of acres during last year's drought cost $260 million in crop losses statewide, as well as hundreds of jobs. In the tiny farm community of Mendota, in the heart of Westlands farming country, the unemployment rate is nearly 40 percent, city officials report.

Elissa Lynn, a senior meteorologist with the state water agency, said the forecast so far suggests conditions will not improve this spring.

"It's pretty clear we're heading into the third dry year in a row," Lynn said. "We've only gotten one-third of the rainfall we desperately need, and we're already halfway through the winter."

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