Got water?

It’s one of the questions Steve Patricio and his staff posed for decades as they lined up growers of cantaloupes and honeydew melons for Westside Produce in Firebaugh, Calif.

That selection process kept the enterprise, which had its beginnings in the 1970s, on a stable footing, even with drought and curtailment of water deliveries to major stretches of farmland in California. In recent years, those shortfalls cast a shadow over a sign just down the road in Mendota, Calif., — “Cantaloupe Center of the World.”

Patricio, president of Westside Produce, said the region still holds its position as a major producer of melons and cantaloupes. But production offshore has cut into its share of the globe’s supply.

And Patricio, who is widely regarded for his knowledge of California water issues, has certainly not turned his back on the water have-nots (or at least have-less) in areas such as the huge water-short Westlands Water District.

That’s because Patricio and other managers at Westside Produce also take into account grower savvy and performance.

Steeped as he is in the history of water in California, Patricio says he is bullish on the prospect for an improved water picture for the state. That’s not because storms that have swept into the San Joaquin Valley — or minor leaks that turned up at his packing facility, necessitating off-season repairs well before the plant hums with activity.

“I don’t see what is happening as the beginning of the end; I see it as the end of the beginning,” he said, adding that he finds optimism in recent legislative action that goes beyond an $11 million state water bond. It includes, among other things, establishment of a stewardship council for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a key to the valley’s water delivery system.

Other legislation establishes conservation projects for the Delta, improved groundwater management and improved oversight of the Delta and its health.

“An earthquake in the Delta could collapse the levy system and turn it into an instant saltwater sea,” Patricio said. “It would destroy the water supply for 28 million people.”

Patricio likens the state to an hourglass: “A fourth of the people live at the top, and 75 percent of the water comes from there. Seventy-five percent of the people are below. With water at the top and people at the bottom, the challenge is to push water through the junction on the hourglass, which is the Delta.”

He said he received a good primer on the state’s water struggles – and the future of water needs – from his mentor, Jess Port Telles Jr., who hired him as chief financial officer in the early 1970s. Westside Produce was started in 1993 by Jess Telles, Patricio and James Malanca, then TRI produce sales manager.

Earlier, Jess Telles and his brother, Frank, had established one of the largest farming operations in the Western United States, growing more than 40,000 acres of cotton, melons, tomatoes, lettuce and wheat. The brothers for a time were the world’s largest growers and shippers of cantaloupes.

Patricio said Jess Telles, a water attorney, and he spent “countless hours discussing water — the past, present and future implications. He predicted what’s happening today.”

That includes supply and conveyance problems — getting the water from where it falls to where it is desperately needed.

“The squeeze point is the Delta,” said Patricio, who is a past board chairman of Western Growers, an association representing the majority of vegetable, fruit and nut grower/shippers in the West.

Telles impressed upon Patricio the need to connect with growers “who will have water into the future.” For the most part, those are farmers who get their water through exchange contractors, four entities that long ago struck a deal with the federal government that assures they’ll get a full allocation. It also includes farmers with wells that can supplement needed water supplies.

His mentor would often remark, “It’s not that there’s a shortage of water, there’s a shortage of cheap water.”

“Even today,” Patricio said, “people can get water; it’s whether they can afford to pay the price.”

At the same time, Patricio believes much of the world is poised on the verge of a water crisis that would cause the energy crisis of past years to pale by comparison as the world’s population grows.

As for the shortfall on water for the valley’s growers in recent years, Patricio says there is little doubt that there is an environmental drought that goes beyond what some call “a judicial drought” caused by legislative regulatory actions being debated in the courts and the shutting down pumps to protect fish in the Delta.

“But we’ve faced worse environmental droughts,” he said. “The past three years were the 10th driest in the past 100 years, meaning there were nine worse three-year periods. There were five between 1975 and today. But never before were federal water deliveries below 25 percent.”

Patricio said he sees some irony in references to threatened fish species as “the canary in the coal mine.”

“The canary was used in the coal mine so that that people didn’t die,” he said. “Now, it’s as though we’re keeping the canary alive and killing people.”

Westside Produce markets fruit under the label of TRI, taking its name from Telles Ranches Inc.

The plant has been used in recent weeks to store almonds for a huller-sheller in Los Banos. Only 10 employees are at work in the off-season, but 700 will be working there when operations gear up in the summer.

The plant’s yard is filled with trailers that will be used in the harvest, which runs from late July to October in the valley. Patricio explains that Westside Produce, which is also a marketing agent for growers in Yuma, Ariz., neither grows the fruit nor buys it from farmers.

Instead, it advises growers, harvests their crop, cools it, packs it and markets it for them. Patricio said the fruit is grown as part of a rotation by about 30 growers. Melon acreage in most cases is no more than 85 acres. He said the enterprise probably handles less than 1 percent of the world’s melons, “maybe 10 percent at the peak of the summer season.”

Westside Produce has farmers growing melons on 3,000 acres in the Central Valley and another 500 to 1,000 acres elsewhere. The company ships between 2 and 3 million packages in a year.

It markets melons to retailers and food service, with retail amounting to about a third of the business. With a lagging economy, Patricio said, “we’ve seen slower growth in food service.”

But on the positive side, he said, more melons “are winding up in shopper’s carts than on restaurant plates.”

Melons use less water than many other crops, between 14 and 15 inches per acre, Patricio said, compared to 2.5 to 3 acre feet for cotton, 1.5 to 2 acre feet for tomatoes and 4 to 5 acre feet for almonds.

Patricio is a certified public accountant and graduate of the University of Santa Clara. So are his two sons who are part of Westside Produce management team: Blake Patricio, vice president of finance, and Garrett Patricio, vice president of operations and general counsel.

Cannon Michael, with Bowles Farming out of the Los Banos/Dos Palos area, is among growers who work with the company. He praised Westside, which he said has integrity “and wants their growers to succeed. They have a good business philosophy.”

Michael recalled a conversation with Garrett Patricio in which there was a discussion of whether more melons should be planted this year, given good pricing and yields last year. The younger Patricio told him not to ramp up too much, given the fact that other growers might switch out of other crops to plant melons as well.

“Their market knowledge is good, they’re not just telling people what they want to hear,” Michael said. “They don’t encourage over-production.”

Both Michael and a neighboring grower, Pat Palazzo, said they have had sufficient water through exchange contractors, they have wells and the water table is high in the area they farm.

But there’s a downside, both said. The higher water table means they need to focus on row crops rather than trees.

Michael said melons are a good rotation crop because they return nitrogen to the soil and leave a high amount of residual material that can be tilled into the ground to boost organic matter “and help with tilth and health of the soil.”