(June 27, 2:16 p.m.) The future of California’s San Joaquin Valley as a major source of fresh produce could be in jeopardy. A few summer commodities may be in tight supply this year, but it is the fall — and beyond — that could affect retail and foodservice, grower-shippers said.

“If this trend continues, the ability of California and the county of Fresno to continue to produce a domestic food supply is very threatened,” said Jerry Prieto, the county’s agriculture commissioner.

The problem is a lack of irrigation water. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s preliminary crop loss estimate, released June 25, puts the total at more than $167 million. Hardest hit, according to the estimate, are the valley counties of Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern. Crop losses in those counties are put at $125 million.

A combination of factors created the severe irrigation water shortage, especially along the west side of the crop-rich San Joaquin Valley. After a wet early winter, the March, April and May rainfall total was the lowest since 1924, according to the National Weather Service.

Compounding the problem was a federal judge’s ruling to reduce pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the California aqueduct, a 450-mile-long concrete canal that sends water through the valley and into Southern California. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit over the Endangered Species Act.

As a result of the ruling, state officials notified water districts in late January that they could anticipate receiving, on average, about 25% of their normal allotments. The dry spring changed all that.

The food and agriculture department’s June 25 report indicates about 20,000 acres of row crop land has gone unplanted or has been abandoned.

Growers in the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, the state’s largest, will receive in June, July and August two-thirds of an acre foot of water per acre versus the nearly 2.5 acre feet anticipated in January, said Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the district.

“This is absolutely Mother Nature’s way of giving us a wake up call and saying, ‘I’m not kidding,’” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, Fresno. “We need dams.”

The dilemma may be a long-term problem for the growers — and their customers, retail and foodservice.

“It’s speculation at this point, but from what I’ve heard from the water experts and officials, 2009 has the potential to be far worse than what we’re dealing with now, especially if we don’t have a wet winter,” said Erin Field, California government affairs manager for Western Growers, Sacramento, Calif.

Supply gaps are a distinct possibility this fall and again in the spring, Field said.

“The high point of ag industry water use runs through Aug. 31,” Field said, “Then the urban high point takes over. So there may not be additional water in the fall.”

“With the flooding in the Midwest, supplies are going to be reduced and food costs are going to go up,” Woolf said.

The bulk of the San Joaquin Valley’s tree fruit, citrus and table grape crops are grown on the valley’s east side, where water supplies are adequate, Prieto said. Irrigation supplies are still limited, however.

“The Chowchilla Water District normally delivers water up to nine months a year, but has notified growers it will deliver only for 10 weeks this year,” said Jay Seslowe, assistant agriculture commissioner in Madera County.

It’s the west side that faces the greatest obstacles.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency June 13 for the most affected counties. The order permitted the pumping of salty well water into the aqueduct. It may be little more than a band aid approach.

“We now have one landowner who has passed all water quality tests and is able to pump well water into the aqueduct,” Woolf said June 26. “We anticipate we’ll have more, but probably fewer than six.”

The additional water will be helpful, but it won’t fix the problem, she said.

“The landscape of the west side has changed over the years from row crops to permanent crops, almonds, pistachios and wine grapes,” said Rich Matoian, executive director of the Western Pistachio Association, Fresno.

Some growers have secured water at what Matoian called incredibly high prices. The cost of buying irrigation water for one large grower, Matoian said, was $900,000.

“That’s above and beyond his normal cost of irrigation water, and he said he couldn’t make that investment again next year.” Matoian said.

Growers who have tried to have wells drilled are meeting with limited success.

“I’m getting calls complaining the waiting list is up to six months long,” said Mike Mortensson, executive director of the California Groundwater Association, Santa Rosa.

The association represents the state’s licensed drilling contractors, who Mortensson said are getting calls from growers at all hours of the day. Getting a well drilled is just one facet of the problem.

“The cost of a west side well is often upwards of $500,000,” Woolf said. “Pumping is expensive, too, about $200 per acre foot just to get the water to surface.”

California’s environmental laws have virtually eliminated the use of diesel engines to power pumps. Installing electric motors creates another dilemma.

“You’re going to be on a waiting list for at least a year just to get the hookup,” Prieto said. “Pacific Gas & Electric doesn’t have the energy capacity to serve you.”

Grower-shippers are not encouraged about the long-range view.

“Even a wet winter would not solve the dilemma,” Woolf said. “We still would be limited due to the endangered species ruling.”

The overriding problem, Bedwell said, is that politicians and bureaucrats have been squabbling while the state’s population zoomed to more than 34 million people.

“Take agriculture out of the mix,” he said, “and the reality is this is not good policy to keep ignoring the fact that we are going to need more water. We have not worked on our plumbing for almost five decades.”