Chris Hurd’s almonds escaped the freeze, and pollination was sufficient for a good set. Mild May weather was the icing on the cake, setting the stage for a crop which could produce as much as 10 percent more than his ranch average.

But, like other growers on the San Joaquin Valley’s West Side, water looms as the Achilles heel.

With federal water allocation just two-tenths of an acre foot per acre this year, the fate of Hurd’s nicely developing crop all depends on whether he can get enough water elsewhere to take the crop to harvest.

“Water is what it’s all about this year,” he says. “An estimated 200,000 acres of almonds on the Central Valley Project are in jeopardy because of the short supply of surface water. The water situation is overshadowing every other production concern — it’s truly a case of who makes it through this year and who doesn’t.”

The frustration only grows with the reality that rainfall has been about 90 percent of normal this year, and “flawed” environmental laws that are limiting water supplies. To protect the Delta smelt, some 400,000 acre-feet of water has been allowed to flow into San Francisco Bay this year rather than into the San Joaquin Valley.

Hurd’s Circle G Farms has 1,000 acres of almonds in the Firebaugh area, including Butte, Padre and nonpareil hard shells and California varieties Carmel, Monterey and Woods Colony.

“We’re spending a lot of money sourcing other water and hanging in there,” Hurd says. “Just trying to stay in business for one more day takes two-thirds of my time.”

He’s paying from $300 to $500 per acre-foot — when he can find water for sale. Cost for his scant CVP water is about $121 per acre foot.

Other West Side growers are buying row crop land for the water rights, fallowing it, and transferring water to their orchards. Some are simply applying less water, putting the life of their trees at risk, he says.

“We’re managing our irrigation to meet daily ET requirements exactly and irrigating only the soil profile. Not one drop is leaving the ranch, either on the surface or subsurface. When you’re spending $500 an acre-foot for water, you can’t afford to miss — you have to be right on.”