Uncertainty about surface irrigation water availability is changing the cropping mix across California, particularly on the West Side of the central valley where surplus water auction prices reached $700 per acre foot last year and opened at $500 for water next summer.

“I can’t tell you how many times in my farming career I’ve quit growing wheat,” says Ted Sheely, owner of AZCAL Management Company, Kings County, Calif. “But I’m growing it again because it’s one of the best options available under the current circumstances.”

Sheely has cut his garlic acreage to just one 160-acre field this winter due to water concerns. “It takes a lot more water to grow garlic,” he says. “The price of wheat is good, so the decision is not all that difficult.”

His situation is being repeated all across the West Side in irrigation districts without riparian water rights. Row crops are being taken out of the crop rotation equation in order to shift available water to orchards and vineyards. Many row crop growers also are opting out of producing crops like cotton, preferring to sell the water rather than using it.

“Acreage of just about any row crop on the West Side is down because of the water situation,” says Kevin Lehar, with Woolf Enterprises at Huron. “We’re down about half of our normal acreage on garlic, but we’re up on onions. We’ll also be down a little on processing tomatoes in the spring.”

Deliveries from Westlands Water District are currently forecast at only 10 percent to 25 percent of normal, but even that figure is about as accurate as a wayward dart, Lehar says.

“We’re still waiting for the judge’s decision on protecting the Delta smelt population. All I can say is it doesn’t look promising — there’s not a lot of carryover from Northern California.”