California faces grimmest water situation ever

Drought causes the state’s agriculture industry to disappear while residents continue to consume water at high levels

Sprinklers water wheat crops in Bakersfield, California. The state is facing a severe water crisis. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

Bill Diedrich, a fourth-generation almond grower in California’s Central Valley, expects that many of his trees won’t make it through the year. “It’s one of the grimmest water situations we’ve ever faced,” he said. “It’s an absolute emergency and anything to get water flowing quickly is needed.”

The 400-mile Central Valley is many things: the world’s largest agricultural area; the “salad bowl”, where half of the country’s vegetables are grown. But this year, with water shortages of a severity not seen for decades, many farmers and others are echoing the recent words of energy secretary Steven Chu: if current weather patterns continue, Californian agriculture could disappear.

John “Dusty” Giacone, another fourth-generation Central Valley farmer, was forced to abandon his vegetable crop and divert his scarce water to save his 4,000 hectares of almond trees.

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“Taking water from a farmer is like taking a pipe from a plumber,” Giacone told the Associated Press. “How do you conduct business?”

But many farmers are choosing the opposite course, abandoning their almond trees for a season in the hope that the good times, and a wetter than normal spring, might return. In the meantime, the trees are being left to die, or maintained just enough to survive.

The decline in the number of almond trees has led to an unintended consequence: a glut of bee colonies. Bees are used to pollinate almond trees, and beekeepers now face the prospect of an economic collapse as the almond market withers away.

“If it was just a drought, a big February or March could take this off the hook. But it’s not just a drought,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, referring to moves to restrict water flows through some of the Central Valley to protect endangered fish.

Lester Snow, director of the California department of water resources, told reporters that the state faced its most severe drought since at least the early 1990s. “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history,” Snow said. “It’s imperative for Californians to conserve water immediately, at home and in their businesses.”

The reality, however, is that Californians have been slow to reduce their water consumption. Central Valley farmer John Harris said that he had laid off about two-thirds of his workforce and had stopped cultivating most vegetables in order to concentrate on permanent crops. But despite overhauling his irrigation system, he remained critically short of water, a situation most people ignored, he said.

“Maybe when people turn on the shower and nothing comes out, that will be the final wake-up call, but agriculture will have taken devastating losses by the time that happens,” he told agricultural publication Ag Alert.

While Chu warns that he can’t see how California’s cities could survive, their residents are steeped in a culture of challenging nature. Back in 1952, as drought reduced water levels, pulp science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote: “Angelenos committed communal suicide by watering lawns as usual … The taps remained open, trickling away the life blood of the desert paradise.”

Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
Wednesday 4 February 2009 19.18 GMT

Source: The Guardian

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