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- Availability of water isn’t the only doubtful factor in Steve Dee’s plans this year. He’ll also need to find 100 or so workers to pick, dry and box grapes during the month-long harvest.
Steve Dee in one of his Thompson Seedless raisin vineyards west of Kerman, Calif.
In more than three decades of growing raisin grapes, Fresno County farmer Steve Dee never started running water on his fields as early as he did this year – the second week of January. Normally, he doesn’t begin pumping water until March and that’s to benefit the cover crops growing between his rows of vines. In fact, in the last two years, Dee didn’t need to start irrigating his vines until sometime in April, when he received his first deliveries of Fresno Irrigation District water.
Earlier this year, Dee was hoping to receive at least half of his allotment of surface water. But that could change to zero.
“In that case, I’ll be forced to pump all my water this season and I’ll have to be stingy with it to keep my vines alive when the weather turns hot,” says Dee, who farms west of Kerman, Calif. That would add another 50 percent to 70 percent to his electric bill for powering his pumps.
This, of course, follows California’s driest year on record. At the start of California’s third dry year in a row, Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack measurements in late January had dwindled to a record low – just 12 percent of average for that time of year. And reservoirs were lower than they were at the same time in 1977, one of the two previous driest water years on record.
For the first time in its 54-year history, the State Water Project has allocated no water to the nearly 1 million acres of farmland it serves. What’s more, deliveries of federal surface water to an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 acres of Fresno County farmland west of Dee on the West Side of the valley are doubtful.
While unsettling, uncertainty over water supplies is just part of doing business, Dee points out. “Weather is the nature of farming,” he says. “It’s part of everything we do. If I let it bother me, I wouldn’t be farming very long. I have to be very optimistic. We’ll deal with any water shortage and we’ll survive.”