Federal water managers said Friday that they plan to cut off water, at least temporarily, to thousands of California farms as a result of the deepening drought gripping the state.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said parched reservoirs and patchy rainfall this year were forcing them to completely stop surface water deliveries for at least a two-week period beginning March 1. Authorities said they haven’t had to take such a drastic move for more than 15 years.
The situation could improve slightly if more rain falls over the next few weeks, and officials will know by mid-March if they can release more irrigation supplies to growers.
Farmers in the nation’s No. 1 agriculture state predicted it would cause consumers to pay more for their fruits and vegetables, which would have to be grown using expensive well water.
“Water is our life — it’s our jobs and it’s our food,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the farm bureau in Fresno County. “Without a reliable water supply, Fresno County’s No. 1 employer — agriculture — is at great risk.”
The drought would cause an estimated $1.15 billion dollar loss in agriculture-related wages and eliminate as many as 40,000 jobs in farm-related industries in the San Joaquin Valley alone, where most of the nation’s produce and nut crops are grown.
'We're talking about a huge band of area that will be affected," Richard Howitt, professor of resource economics at UC Davis, told msnbc.com in an interview Friday. "I heard these predictions coming down the line, the $1 billion loss in revenue and 40,000 jobs, so I ran the numbers again. "
He delivered the grim statistics to the state Board of Good and Agriculture last week. He said new figures to be released later Friday showed even more trouble head for the state.
"As far as job losses? The answer is the majority of losses will be related to farms and farm work, the processing done for all farm commodities, and all those secondary jobs that roll through the valley economy," Howitt said.
California's sweeping Central Valley grows most of the country's fruits and vegetables in normal years, but this winter thousands of acres turned to dust as the state hurtles into the worst drought in nearly two decades.
The state's agricultural industry typically receives 80 percent of all the water supplies managed by the federal government — everything from far-off mountain streams and suburban reservoirs. The state supplies drinking water to 23 million residents and 755,000 acres of irrigated farmland.
Farms supplied by flows from the state’s system of pumps and canals would also see cutbacks but still get 15 percent of their normal deliveries, said Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources.
This year, both the state and federal reservoirs have reached their lowest level since 1992.
Dwindling supplies would have to be routed to cities to ensure residents, hospitals and fire crews have enough to meet minimum health and safety needs, said Don Glaser, the federal reclamation bureau’s Mid-Pacific Region director.
The water shortages are so severe most cities will have to start mandatory ration programs by summertime, and residents will be asked to reduce their usage by 20 percent, Snow said.
“You’ve got to think about water as a precious resource,” he said. “It may seem a stretch to conserve 20 percent of your water, but that’s nothing in comparison to the consequences of the drought and job loss in agriculture.”