farmer Dusty Gicone points to a water well and pump that
he installed...MENDOTA, Calif. (AP) - Consumers may
pay more for spring lettuce and summer melons in grocery
stores across the country now that California farmers have
started abandoning their fields in response to a crippling
Central Valley grows most of the country's fruits and
vegetables in normal years, but this winter thousands of
acres are turning to dust as the state hurtles into the
worst drought in nearly two decades.
Federal officials' recent announcement that the
water supply they pump through the nation's largest
farm state would drop further was enough to move John
Giacone to forego growing vegetables so he can save his
share to drip-irrigate 1,000 acres of almond trees.
"Taking water from a farmer is like taking a pipe from
a plumber," said Giacone, a fourth-generation farmer in
the tiny community of Mendota. "How do you conduct
The giants of California agribusiness are the biggest
economic engine in the valley, which produces every
cantaloupe on store shelves in summer months, and the bulk
of the nation's lettuce crop each spring and fall.
This year, officials in
Fresno County predict farmers will only grow about
6,000 acres of lettuce, roughly half the acreage devoted
to greens in 2005.
That alone could cause a slight bump in consumer
prices, unless lettuce companies can make up for the
shortage by growing in areas with an abundant water
supply, or the cost of cooling, packaging and shipping the
crop suddenly goes down, experts say.
"Lettuce comes off the field and goes straight into the
market, and if there's nothing coming off the field then
the marketing chain goes dry, and prices go up," said Gary
Lucier, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department
of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
While the dry weather has exacerbated the problem,
farmers' water woes are not all drought-related.
Supplies for crops and cities also have been restricted
by several court decisions cutting back allocations that
flow through a freshwater estuary called the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the main conduit that sends
water to nearly two-thirds of Californians. Environmental
groups and federal scientists say the delta's massive
pumps are one of the factors pushing a native fish to the
brink of extinction.
Last year, federal water deliveries were just 40
percent of the normal allocations, fallowing hundreds of
thousands of acres and causing nearly $309 million in
crop losses statewide. That prompted Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger to issue a disaster declaration, ordering
state water managers to expedite any requests to move
water around the state, in part so high-value crops like
wine grapes, almonds and pistachio trees would stand a
chance of surviving.
Federal reservoirs are now at their lowest level since
With such a grim outlook, many California farmers
including Giacone are investing millions to drill down
hundreds of feet in search of new water sources.
Depending on how much it rains this winter, federal
water supplies could be slashed down to nothing this year,
forcing farmers to rely solely on brackish
well water. But the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation won't
make an official decision until late February, said Ron
Milligan, the agency's Central Valley operations manager.
The state Department of Water Resources, which also
ships farmers water, has promised to deliver 15 percent of
the normal allocations in October, but conditions are so
dire that that's now in doubt, too.
"The consequences are expected to be pretty horrible in
terms of farmers' revenue, but what's really disconcerting
are the possible job losses," said Wendy Martin, who leads
the agency's drought division. "Those communities that can
least weather an economic downturn are going to be some of
the places that are hit the hardest."
Richard Howitt, a professor of agriculture economics at
the University of California, Davis, estimates that $1.6
billion in agriculture-related wages, and as many as
60,000 jobs across the valley will be lost in the coming
months due to dwindling water.
Analysts haven't yet provided any estimates of crop
losses this year. But Bill Diedrich, an almond grower on
the valley's parched western edge, said he's already
worried he may lose some of his nut trees in the drought.
"The real story here is food security," Diedrich told
Milligan and other officials speaking at a conference in
Reno, Nev. "It's an absolute emergency and anything to get
water flowing quickly is needed."
In the meantime, the forecast appears to be worsening:
Meteorologists are predicting a dry spring, and a new
state survey shows the population of threatened fish is at
its lowest point in 42 years, more imperiled than
"This has devastating effects not only for the guys out
there in the fields with the weed whackers, but it affects
the whole farming industry," said Thomas Nyberg, Fresno
County's deputy agricultural commissioner. "I'm just
praying for rain."
Associated Press writer Martin Griffith in Reno, Nev.
also contributed to this report.