Today’s West Side water crisis is no surprise to Diener and others. Environmental constraints; a growing California population and its impact on Delta water flow and quality and other factors have made this current water crisis far direr than past droughts.

“I never wanted more than 25 to 30 percent of the farm planted into permanent crops,” he said. He knew he would need the flexibility of open ground to manage a dwindling surface water supply.

“Water availability has always been an issue on the West Side,” he said.

However, he never expected deliveries to fall as low as the 10 percent allocation last year. That makes development of drainage water reclamation to recover usable water even more critical. Reclaimed drainage water may be the only “new” water he and his fellow farmers get for a long time.

“No one conceptualized the impact of the fish biological opinions cutting into the water supplies like they have. It is so onerous no one expected it to happen,” he said.

Farmers are in the fight of their lives over these opinions giving water to smelt and salmon, which have severely impacted water movement through the Delta.

“I think we are reaching the point where we are as efficient as we can be, and with a 10 percent water allocation, we are stretched too far,” he admitted.

The water future is more uncertain than ever. It is so tenuous, Diener predicts there will be no almonds grown in many areas of the West Side in 10 years.

Last year he was forced to fallow about 15 percent of his land to stretch his water allocation. “You have to have the dynamics of size to manage available water; to move water and crops around,” said Diener.

“We cannot compete and survive without costs today unless we grow high value crops, but there is a limit to what you can grow based on the limited water supply.”

Diener believes some growers went too far into permanent crops, and they are now in financial trouble, even with good permanent crop commodity prices.

“The thinking was that they would plant 100 percent permanent crops and make enough money to buy water. However, there is no water to sell. Why I am I going to sell my water at the expense of my trees and vines? It is not happening,” he said.

Like most West Side farmers, Diener has groundwater supplies. However, he has not drilled to the extent some have. He believes with the declining water table and what he views as impending state regulations on groundwater pumping, the capital investment is too risky.

It could be a disheartening story if someone other than John Diener were telling it.

Diener is a successful farmer/businessman. He is wealthy. He could walk away tomorrow and not look back.

However, and maybe because of his early career path, he feels responsible for the land and for people who could be fed from it.

“Ag is my bag,” he jokes. That is too trite to depict Diener. There is more to Diener than just being a farmer. He relishes growing things. He grows Camellias for a hobby. As a child growing up on the West Side, a neighbor would give him out-of-stock hardware store vegetable seed packets for Diener’s garden.

He describes his role as farmer stewardship. He rightfully bristles at criticism portraying him as a despoiler of the land. Diener wants to leave the world and the San Joaquin Valley a better place when he leaves this earth. He has invested millions to ward off consequences of water shortages and perched, salty water.

In these times, politicians and others avoid dealing with tough issues by hurling them into the future for others to resolve.

“Some people choose to kick the can down the road when it comes to challenges like water availability and drainage,” says Diener. “I choose not to.”

hcline@farmpress.com