Farmers vs. Fish Amid the California Drought

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David McNew / Getty

A former farm is graded and put up for sale for commercial development near Bakersfield. Urgent calls for Californians to conserve water have grown after the final Sierra Nevada snow survey of the season indicated a snow depth and water content at only 67% of normal levels

Correction Appended: June 16, 2008

Todd Diedrich watches a lone tractor churn up dust as it lumbers down rows of still-green plants. "We're trying to patch up the cracks," the farmer explains, referring to his desperate effort to retain what little moisture remains in the ground, now that he has been forced to turn down his irrigation drip. Diedrich says the California drought could cost him 750 acres, which he estimates to be worth $3 million. He gestures to the land that his family has been farming for decades. "This will all be gone," he says. "And there may not be a 'next year.'"

Diedrich's farm is located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, traditionally a cornucopia of tomatoes, almonds, cantaloupe, pistachios and lettuces. The area around Firebaugh has been hit hard by a severe drought caused by two years of below-average rainfall, a diminished Sierra Nevada snowpack and new court-ordered environmental restrictions on pumping. Despite having officially recognized the drought on June 4, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet to declare a state of emergency that would lift some of the environmental restrictions on providing relief to the farmers — although he is pushing the state legislature to approve issuing an $11.9 billion bond for water management investments such as additional reservoirs, water recycling programs and better means of transfer.

Californians across the state are voluntarily cutting down on sprinkler use and dealing with curbs on development and high fire hazards. But the farmers around Firebaugh have more to lose. "This is the first time water has ever been rationed like this," says Sarah Clark Woolf, spokeswoman for Westlands Water District, which has been forced to cut irrigation supplies to hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land. California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar estimates that Fresno County could lose 20% to 30% of its agricultural output this season.

The area is in trouble because its water is piped in from the beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Last August, a Federal court set limits on pumping from the Delta, in an attempt to help endangered smelt fish. In a further measure to protect smelt, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced just last week it would cut San Joaquin Valley farm water supplies to 40% of the contracted amount. Many of the farmers in the region have been allotted only one sixth of the water supply they need to sustain their crops through the crucial summer months. "This is a death sentence," says almond and wine farmer Shawn Coburn.

And the local farmers are particularly bitter at the environmental priorities governing water use. "We're looking after fish, and yet we're losing crops," says almond farmer Cort Blackburn. "You cannot put the fish in front of all the people." Chris Cardella, a farmer on the east side of Firebaugh, agrees: "We need legislature to overrule all our environmental impacts because humans come first over fish." Mosebar dismisses such "myopic" thinking: "If we're assisting the fish, we're also assisting our food production." He hopes this crisis will spawn better infrastructure for moving and storing water. "We're at a crossroads right now," he says. "This is a wakeup call."

"The operations we've done for some of the endangered fish species did have an initial affect on our allocation earlier this year," says Paul Fujitani of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "But in the past few months, our biggest problem is with the dryness." Protecting endangered species, he says, is simply "something we've got to do."

Field after field in this fertile valley has been abandoned, either left unplanted this year or with seedlings withering in the sun. A swath of young green cotton has an inky black stripe running through its middle; as the field becomes more stressed from the lack of water, the black will spread. Safflowers, which should be a brilliant gold this time of year, are limp and brown. Farmers pace the dusty fields, eyeing their almond trees and grape vines, both heavy with unripe fruit, trying to decide which ones to allow to die. "It's like which kid to keep and which to get rid of," Coburn says.

The stricken farmers face another wrenching decision: which of their long-time employees to send home. Diedrich has just laid off 25 employees, and he is hardly unique. The impact is noticeable in Firebaugh's community of some 7,500, mostly Latino farm workers. At noon on a Monday, the small town's streets are full of pickup trucks and vans that would normally be in the fields this time of year. Butch Fleming, who owns the town's Ag & Industrial Supply, gestures at his empty store, which he says is usually packed with customers. "Farmers don't know what they're going to do — you don't just let orchards die," he says, adding that business in his store is down at least 25% from last year because people are afraid to invest in equipment. Fleming has had to lay off all of his full-time employees. Down the street, Jack Minnite, owner of Jack's Prime Time restaurant, says: "We all are going to suffer from this. And it will escalate from the community to the state to the nation."

In the meantime, farmers are scrambling to find water anywhere they can. Some are cleaning the moss out of old wells, or drilling new ones. Others are bargaining with neighbors to give up on "road crops" such as tomatoes and sell their water to desperate owners of permanent crops like almond trees and grape vines. Most are bracing for the worst: "I'm sweating it," says almond farmer Blackburn. "I've never been down this road before, but we're going to take a hit financially. If this drought continues, we'll lose it all."

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that store owner Butch Fleming laid off all his full-time employees in reaction to slumping sales figures. The full-time employees' hours were cut back to part-time.