Pistachio grower Brian Blackwell, Bakersfield, Calif., and his neighbors were more than a little pleased when they got word in mid-April that their allocation of state water had been boosted from 20 percent of normal to 30 percent. “It’s a huge increase for us this year,” he says. “Not long ago, who would have thought we’d be so happy to get 30 percent of our total allotment?”
In addition to managing the largest pistachio nursery in the country, his business, Blackwell Farming, owns pistachio orchards and manages those for clients in Kern and Tulare counties. Blackwell also chairs the Administrative Committee for Pistachios, a federal marketing order and is vice chairman of the Western Pistachio Association.
During the four decades that the state water project has been providing water for growers, this is the third lowest allocation, he reports. His orchards, all drip irrigated, are located in nine different water districts. Two are receiving about two acre-feet of federal water this year, about 55 percent to 70 percent of normal.
Blackwell has been lining up sources of extra water to help get through the extreme water-shortage. “We’ve been turning over every rock and piece of moss we can find in search of anyone who can provide any amount of water to help us out,” he says.
He’s been buying anywhere from 20 to 1,000 acre-feet from various farmers who have water to sell this year because they’ve idled land rather than risk losing an annual crop. Blackwell is also making withdrawals from various district water banks. “The problem is, in a year like this, when everyone is taking water from the bank, your pro rata share is less than in a year when fewer farmers are removing water from the bank,” he says.
He’s paying from $40 to $200 per acre foot, including the cost of electricity to power his pump. However, that figure doesn’t represent any fixed costs, like assessments and taxes. “Even though we’re getting only 30 percent of our allocations of state water, we still have to pay for the costs of building the project originally and the expenses to operate the facility based on our full allocation amount,” he says. “All those costs are making our water very expensive this year.”
As he has in previous water-short years, Blackwell will water his pistachio trees this season using regulated deficit irrigation. He’ll provide them with 100 percent of consumptive use from bloom through leaf expansion. Then, he’ll cut application rates in half during shell hardening. From nut fill through hull slip, he’ll go back to meeting full water needs. During and after harvest, he’ll lower irrigation rates to just 25 percent of normal tree consumption rates.
“We’ve used this practice successfully in the past and we’ve never seen any detrimental effects,” Blackwell says.
“Up to this point the 2009 water budget has been a moving target,” he says. “I think our water allotments are pretty well set for this season. I expect to pull the trigger on our final water budget around May 1. Although a lot depends on the weather, we should have enough water to meet or be very close to our needs. Right now I see no reason why regulated deficit irrigation won’t work for us this year.”