(This story is part of a Reuters series on infrastructure)
* Top U.S. farming state faces big drought losses
* Climate change will exacerbate farm water shortage
* Low-water crops and better storage key to future
By Mary Milliken
FRESNO, Calif., March 13 California almond
farmer Marvin Meyers has moved into banking -- water banking
In the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, the world's most
productive agricultural region, Meyers bought land to collect
water in wet years and recharge a shallow aquifer. The water
authority takes his supply for nearby farmers and gives him
credit to irrigate from a canal at his orchard 15 miles (24 km)
It cost Meyers $7 million and lots of headaches, but now he
is the envy of farmers facing a third year of drought, drastic
water cutbacks and billions of dollars in losses.
Worse may lie ahead, as climate change leads to longer
droughts and depletes the mountain snowpack that now provides a
steady stream of water until late in the farming year.
Yet, for all his vision, Meyers's "bank of last resort"
will run dry if the drought persists for three more years.
"I do all I can, but really it is just Band-Aid farming,"
said Meyers, who grows 8 million pounds (3.6 million kgs) of
almonds for the likes of Hershey's chocolate and German
His "Band-Aid" shows how fragile the water future is for
California's $35 billion farm industry -- source of half of
U.S. fruit, vegetables and nuts, 80 percent of the world's
almonds and one-third of its canned tomatoes.
If the state cannot learn to farm with less water and build
infrastructure to capture more, the economic impact will be
dramatic. Farming accounts for only 2 percent of the state
economy but its demand for equipment, transport and other
services means its demise would be widely felt.
When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a
drought emergency last month, state officials said as many as
95,000 agricultural jobs would go. Total economic losses could
reach $3 billion. Up to a third of the 3 million acres (1.2
million hectares) normally irrigated with federally supplied
water will be left fallow.
No place is worse off than the parched San Joaquin Valley,
where crops rely on water that travels hundreds of miles from
the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. But farmers up and down the
state, from San Diego to Sacramento, are making hard choices.
Some are paring trees back to stumps and keeping the roots
alive with minimal water; others are letting older trees die.
Row crops, like lettuce and tomatoes, will not be planted
without water. And farmers say they are having tough
conversations with their children about their inheritance and
'THE MAN-MADE DROUGHT'
"I am third generation and I have a nephew and a son," said
San Joaquin almond farmer Mike Wood, 53. "Frankly, I don't
believe it will be here when they are ready to go."
Perhaps, this year's shock therapy will bring together
warring parties at the water table -- farmers, cities,
government, taxpayers and environmentalists -- to plot a future
that allows California to maintain its agricultural dominance.
"If you look at California, things happen with crisis and
we are in one right now," said Richard Howitt, a resource
economist at the University of California, Davis.
Like the late 1970s and early 1990s, farmers have to
contend with Mother Nature's drought. But now they also have
what they call "the man-made drought" -- restrictions on the
amount of water they can pump from the Sacramento-San Joaquin
Delta, imposed to protect a fish species, the delta smelt.
The once-mighty water infrastructure is old and
insufficient, with new canals and storage facilities years if
not decades away from completion. Meanwhile, the state's
population may double by 2050, heralding bigger water battles
between cities and farms.
With such daunting short-term challenges, few farmers can
think about the longer-term impact of climate change. Some
models show California's water supply dropping 24 to 30 percent
over the century, mostly after 2050. Others expect rain
patterns to vary wildly, making farming tougher.
New U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned that climate
change could melt the Sierra snowpack and wipe out California
farms by century's end.
"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut
what could happen," Chu told the Los Angeles Times in February.
"We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture
Some wonder whether California's vast agriculture industry
should have been allowed to grow in the first place.
The San Joaquin Valley, 60 percent of the state's prime
farmland, gets little rain and its groundwater was mostly
pumped out by pioneers decades ago. Thanks to massive dams
built in the 1930s and the California Aqueduct canal system in
the 1960s, the valley exploited its rich soil and Mediterranean
Successful farms also attracted industry, like the tomato
processing plants that move 11 million tons a year -- double
But farmers struggle with a widely held perception that
they have squandered the state's water, living far beyond
California's hydrological means.
The water think-tank, the Oakland-based Pacific Institute,
said farming uses 80 percent of the state's water, half in
inefficient flood irrigation, while cities get the rest.
"Agriculture can no longer own the water of California
without drastically changing their practices or water is not
going to be available for people, for cities, for industry,"
said Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances
FAREWELL COTTON, HELLO STORAGE
San Joaquin Valley farmers complain that environmentalists
ignore their progress in conservation and smart irrigation. In
western parts of Fresno County, which leads the nation in farm
production, drip and sprinkle irrigation is ubiquitous.
"The Westside farmer is the most refined, high-tech
irrigator there is," said Meyers. "We don't waste a drop."
Still, the Pacific Institute says farmers can do better.
"It's ironic because I do a lot of international water work
and there's no other place on the planet where, in my opinion,
the agricultural sector is so insistent that they can't do
better," said Peter Gleick, institute president.
Farmers also point to reductions in water-intensive crops
like cotton or rice in favor of vegetables, fruits and nuts
that use water more efficiently. Cotton now covers just 200,000
acres (81,000 hectares) compared to 1 million acres (405,000
hectares) in the past.
Farmers and the state government agree infrastructure
rather than conservation is the key to their future.
"We have to look at the things we can invest in at the
state level that give us more predictability of a water supply
that is deliverable, has high quality and protects the
environment," said state agriculture secretary, A.G. Kawamura.
Farm interests and the state want a "peripheral canal"
built around the delta to deliver water to farms and cities
while observing pumping restrictions for fish conservation.
When it comes to increasing water storage, the large,
remote dams of the past offer no solution.
However, diverting precipitation toward depleted aquifers,
as Meyers is doing on a small scale, can help build water
reserves for droughts. Regions which often compete for water
are beginning to work together to recharge common supplies.
Amid the doom and gloom, UC Davis' Howitt says he remains
"unfashionably slightly optimistic." Salvation could come, he
says, by swapping to higher value crops.
"We can downsize in land area and water use, but because we
grow crops that wealthier people like to eat, we can actually
offset much of this downsizing by expanding the fruits, nuts
and vegetables," he said.
(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom and Carey Gillam,
editing by Alan Elsner)