FRESNO COUNTY, CALIFORNIA— California is a major farming state, and a serious drought is hurting its farmers and raising the likelihood of higher food prices throughout the United States. In the state's Central Valley water-starved farms are cutting production.
Last year was the driest on record in California, and this year may be just as dry.
Some reservoirs are empty and the Sierra mountain snow pack, which melts and fills rivers in the springtime, is at dangerously low levels -- just one quarter of normal.
Farmers warn of another "Dust Bowl" -- referring to the drought and dust storms that ravaged American farmlands in the 1930s.
California produces nearly half of the United States' fruits and vegetables, and much of it comes from the state's sprawling Central Valley.
Dan Errotabere is a third generation farmer who grows tomatoes, walnuts, garlic and other crops in Fresno County. The federal agency that controls the water released from dams and the river system has cut his water supplies to zero.
“The last couple of years, dry years, coupled with severe environmental restrictions, has now presented us with a zero allocation year," said Errotabere.
More than 200,000 hectares of prime farmland may go unplanted in the Central Valley. Errotabere will let more than 20 percent of his farm lie fallow and lay off 10 of 25 workers.
“Right now, we're completely depending on wells to finish these crops off, but I'm going to be fallowing [not planting on] 1,200 acres [485 hectares] of our operation. There won't be anything growing on there,” he said.
Even years with good rainfall have seen reduced water allocations, as federal and state officials supply water to the Sacramento River Delta, home of delta smelt and other endangered species.
Errotabere -- and other farmers -- say the water system is mismanaged and that his high-efficiency drip irrigation system offers little help without supplies of water.
Ryan Jacobsen of the Fresno County Farm Bureau said the shortage is forcing hard decisions. “The severity of this drought will be seen for possibly a decade to come because of the effects it's going to have on permanent crops and the likelihood that many of these permanent crops may have to come out of the ground.”
Those permanent crops include citrus, walnuts and grapes.
The effects have not hit the nation's consumers yet, but inevitably they will, as shortages lead to higher prices.
Jon Murga of Fresco Community Markets in Los Angeles said politicians need to come up with an answer to the water crisis.
“Because that, at this moment, seems to me to be the most important thing that we need to be addressing. Long term, short term, intermediate term, however you choose to look at it,” said Murga.
Murga said rising food costs in California will affect the entire country. And since California is a major exporter of food, it also will affect markets overseas.
Long-term solutions include conservation and recycling waste water, building desalination plants and -- farmers say -- better management of the state's water system.