Not knowing what your water supplies are going to be from year to year has challenged California Westside grower-shippers, who say it complicates cropping decisions.
The federal Central Valley Project, which supplies the bulk of surface water to the Westside, announced in late winter that it intended to deliver only 20% of contracted amounts this year.
Project officials blamed the reduced deliveries on a meager Sierra Nevada snowpack and mandated river flows for endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta.
This is not the first year that the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the project, has cut water deliveries, either. Last season, Westside growers received 40% of contracted amount even though Sierra snowpack was above average.
Devine Organics LLC, Fresno, Calif., has deep wells in some fields to augment surface water supplies, said Rod Rosales, sales director. But in fields without the wells, he said, they manage the best they can.
Like many grower-shippers, he said Devine Organics has reduced its overall plantings, although cantaloupe acreage is only slightly less than last year.
“There are certain things we decided against planting simply because we didn’t feel there was enough water to go around,” Rosales said.
Milas Russell, marketing director for Sandstone Marketing, Yuma Ariz., which also grows, packs and ships specialty melons on the Westside, said the central California water situation creates a set of challenges not experienced in the desert.
“You’re seeing some outrageous prices for water,” Russell said.
A few northern water districts with surplus water have offered to sell it to Westside water districts. Sellers must factor in water that’s lost to evaporation during canal transport as well as devote a specified amount to wildlife uses.
“It’s dire,” Russell said.
Before planting, Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif., had to shuffle around about 300-500 acres of mostly cantaloupe to fields that had adequate water, said Jim Malanca, senior vice president.
“We had to move to different areas because we couldn’t get water to the areas where they were originally scheduled,” he said.
The grower-packer-shipper hasn’t reduced its plantings, and Malanca said he expects about the same melon acreage on the Westside overall. Even if it were down 5%, he said increased yields could offset that.
Based on current conditions, Malanca said he expects the area from Bakersfield north to harvest about 21 million 40-pound cartons, which is about average.
Del Mar Farms, Patterson, Calif., is more fortunate because much of the area around its nearby cantaloupe fields is served by water districts with older water rights, said Brian Wright, sales manager. Although the districts are receiving less water, the cutbacks aren’t nearly as severe as those farther south.
“Water is definitely going to be more expensive, but in terms of availability, we feel we’re in a good position,” he said.