(CORRECTED) CLOVIS, Calif. — With the sound of a bulldozer pushing water-starved citrus trees in the background, a group of California lawmakers and citrus industry leaders drove home the need for a water bond to fund new water storage.

They spoke at a July 29 press conference hosted by citrus grower Shawn Stevenson, who received zero surface water allocations this year from the Friant Unit of the federal Central Valley Project. With access to only limited groundwater supplies, Stevenson said he had to decide in late winter what groves would survive and receive water and what groves to sacrifice.

Even more gut-wrenching, he said, was he had to lay off 30% of his employees.

“This is the first layoff I’ve ever done because of a lack of water,” Stevenson said.

To ensure future surface water supplies, he and others pointed to the $11.1 billion water bond proposal, which has been in the works for more than six years and has qualified for the Nov. 4 California ballot. Should it pass, a portion of the funds would go toward building new reservoir storage for the state.

The current system of canals and reservoirs were designed for a state with 17 million inhabitants — California currently has 38 million people and growing, said Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals.

California lawmakers, ag push for water bondAssemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Bakersfield, who helped draft the original water bond measure, deflected critics who say all of agriculture’s troubles could be solved with improved conservation.

“You can’t conserve if you don’t have it,” said Conway, also Assembly minority leader. “If you don’t store water, there’s nothing to conserve. You can’t recharge wells if you don’t have water to recharge with.”

Water bond supporters had originally targeted the November 2010 ballot. But it was pushed back because the state received rain and the recession hit, said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau director of water affairs.

Efforts to get it on the 2012 ballot again were halted because the measure still wasn’t polling well, he said.

“Late last year there was considerable talk in the Legislature and other circles that it’s too big and it’s got too much pork in it,” he said.

An effort is underway to craft a replacement measure in the neighborhood of $8 billion. Should that happen and it has bipartisan support, the bonds’ original authors would consider a substitution, Conway said.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen has told all parties they have until Aug. 11 to obtain legislative approval to replace the higher-priced measure with a more modest plan and still get it on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Even if they do, Merkley said they’ll be under the gun to raise campaign funds and to educate the voting public about the complex bond measure before the election.

Ripple effect

California lawmakers, ag push for water bondRemoval of the citrus groves at Harlan Ranch, which Stevenson co-owns with other family members, will be felt at Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association’s packinghouse in Orange Cove, said general manager Kevin Severns. Harlan Ranch accounted for 15%-20% of the facility’s volume.

“It’s not a good thing for us by any means,” Severns said. “We’re a grower-owned cooperative, and we’ve been part of their landscape and Harlan Ranch has been part of us.”

Stevenson also sits on the association’s board and serves as vice president.

How big an impact tree removal will have is unknown and will partly depend on how groundwater supplies fare in late summer, he said.

Stevenson isn’t the only citrus grower having to deal with no surface water deliveries and only limited groundwater.

Just south of him sits the Orange Cove Irrigation District, which serves about 28,000 acre of mostly citrus and also received a zero water allocation from the Friant Unit, said Fergus Morrissey, general manager.

Some growers have wells and have turned to groundwater to keep their trees alive.

“So some are going to be OK in general, unless everybody starts pulling on the groundwater,” he said. “There’s a range of what people’s surface water needs are, but we’re experiencing pretty good draw-down of the aquifer and are starting to see issues.”

But others don’t have access to groundwater, having never developed wells.

“It’s really a minority who don’t have groundwater and who are really struggling,” Morrissey said. “It’s not a negligible percentage — probably 15% — who are in a serious situation.”

Note on correction: Deputy of State Debra Bowen was originally misidentified.