Water shortages causing concern for the fresh produce industry seems like a perennial issue, and, with Mother Nature again failing to cooperate with the industry — particularly in many growing regions of California — the water issue made The Packer’s Top 10 stories of 2009.

#9 story of 2009: California growers face fallout of water restrictions, drought

The topic picked up steam as industry officials not only pondered future perils but also debated policy, kicking around terms such as “water rights.”

On Nov. 5, at the 32nd annual meeting of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, the industry reexamined the delta smelt case and the Environmental Species Act in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.

Water loss took its toll on California grower-shippers in 2009 by shrinking fall produce deals.

Reduce acreage

California’s ongoing water woes reduced plantings of fall lettuce in the Huron area of the San Joaquin Valley.

Many California grower-shippers, suffering from a third consecutive year of drought and court-ordered reductions in water shipments, cut back on lettuce acreage. Still others opted out of Huron.

Some Huron-area growers purchased water at premium prices from other irrigation districts.

The burden of supplying fall lettuce fell on the shoulders of those who grow only vegetables. Some reduced acreage.

Fall head lettuce acreage in 2008 fell to 7,100, down more than 14% from 2007, according to the county’s 2008 annual report.

Back in 2004, the county reported that fall head lettuce grew on more than 10,000 acres, and there was another 9,000 acres of leaf lettuce.

Broccoli acreage for Pappas & Co., Mendota, Calif., was down 70% from last year — all because of a lack of irrigation water, said salesman Gene Van Bebber.

Water supply worries not only affected California in 2009 but also Mexico’s neighboring Baja California.

Despite the effects of three consecutive dry years, California tomato grower-shippers remained guardedly optimistic.

Faced last year with the options of cheaper water that could be turned off or paying higher water rates, Oceanside Produce Inc., Oceanside, elected to open the purse strings, said Bill Wilber, president and director of marketing.

However, the company was not prepared to let water districts dictate its future.

California growers facing the driest conditions are the ones in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Water is a huge issue,” said Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, a cooperative based in Fresno.

In spring 2009,  the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League tackled water issues.

Policy protest

April saw what some industry leaders called a historic event in California — a march, hosted by the California Latino Water Coalition, from Mendota to the San Luis Reservoir to protest the state’s water policies.

Building more dams and moving more water from Northern to Southern California ranked among the goals the league intended to lobby for.

In March, California avocado leaders expressed alarm that the lack of water could jeopardize its ability to continue to do business.

Despite the drought, California does not necessarily lack water, grower-shippers have pointed out. Instead, it has more of a storage problem.

“The situation is extremely serious. It can’t be exaggerated,” said Phil Henry, co-owner of Henry Avocado Corp., Escondido, Calif., earlier this year.

A byproduct of the drought is that growers of several commodities have given up growing. The result is that less water is required for agriculture, Henry said, so the water districts are raising the rates for the water that is used.

Some northern water districts offered their surpluses to the highest bidders in the southern district, charging them as much as $1,000 per acre-foot.

“I’ve been in the business 34 years, and this is the worst situation with water we’ve ever had,” said Bob Lucy, co-owner of Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc., Fallbrook, Calif.

“Not only is there the possibility of not getting the water, it’s the cost of the water if you can get it.”

The per-acre estimated cost of water, labor and fertilizer could total $7,000 — or more, he said.

Drought board

Early 2009 saw the federal government creating a group of experts to work with California communities facing severe effects from the state’s drought.

The formation of the group followed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Feb. 20 announcement that, based on initial water forecasts, no water would be made available for agricultural uses in the Central Valley Project, which serves some of California’s most productive farmland.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency on Feb. 27 because of severe drought conditions. The governor also directed the California Department of Water Resources to assist “agricultural water suppliers and agricultural water users” on managing water supplies, according to the governor’s office.

California economists estimated up to 80,000 jobs would be lost and $1.6 billion to $2.2 billion would disappear from the economy in the San Joaquin Valley alone because of the reduced water supplies.