Despite a good bloom, indicating the potential for a decent 2009 crop, almond growers in northern Sacramento Valley aren’t smiling.

Blame the frowns and furrowed brows on concerns about availability of water to irrigate their trees, says Colusa County University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor John Edstrom. “Right now, that’s overshadowing just about everything else,” he says.

Water allocations from the federally-operated Shasta Lake, which supplies the Tehama-Colusa Canal, are set at zero, which Edstrom calls a potential catastrophe.

However, he’s encouraged by recent rains, which have help raised water levels. Shasta Lake is now just over half full.

“Hopefully, the Bureau of Reclamation will increase supplies from the lake to about 10 percent to 25 percent of allotment,” Edstrom says.

Even if that happens, it would still leave about half the county’s almond acres in serious trouble, he notes.

The Sacramento River might help ease the situation somewhat.

Right now, settlement contractors are limited to taking 75 percent for their contract supplies. Edstrom notes the possibility of that being raised to 100 percent.

“If that happens, they’ll probably sell water, but at a very high price.That could take any profits out of the picture for growers. It’s as dire deal. Even if allocations from Shasta Lake are raised to 25 percent, there wouldn’t be many smiles around here.” In the meantime, idled wells are being renovated and new ones are being drilled to help make up for deficient water supplies.

“Well drillers and dirt pumping contractors are swamped with work,” Edstrom notes.

To survive, some growers are abandoning the oldest, lowest-producing orchards, providing just enough water to keep mediocre-yielding trees alive, while sending as much water as possible to better orchards in an attempt to at least break even this year.

Another survival strategy is to control all vegetation on the orchard floor and prevent mite and disease damage to leaves.