Federal water managers said Friday they plan to cut off water, at least temporarily, to thousands of California farms as a result of the deepening drought gripping the state.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said parched reservoirs and patchy rainfall this year were forcing forcing them to completely stop surface water deliveries for at least a two-week period beginning on March 1. Authorities said they haven't had to take such a drastic move for more than 15 years.
The situation could improve slightly if more rain falls over the next few weeks, and officials will know by mid-March if they can update their projections to release more irrigation supplies to growers from behind the mountain dams where water is stored.
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Farmers in the nation's No. 1 agriculture state said the shortages would wreak havoc on the rural economy, and predicted they would cause consumers to pay more for their fruits and vegetables, since they will have to be grown using expensive well water.
"Water is our life -- it's our jobs and it's our food," said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the farm bureau in Fresno County, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. "Without a reliable water supply, Fresno County's number one employer, agriculture, is at great risk."
The drought will cause an estimated $1.15 billion dollar loss in agriculture-related wages and eliminate as many as 40,000 jobs in farm-related industries in the valley alone, where most of the nation's produce and nut crops are grown, said Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow.
California's agricultural industry typically receives 80 percent of all the water supplies managed by the federal government -- everything from far-off mountain streams to suburban reservoirs. The state, in turn, supplies drinking water to 23 million Californians and 755,000 acres of irrigated farmland.
Farms supplied by flows from the state's system of pumps and canals will also see cutbacks, but will still get 15 percent of their normal deliveries, Snow said.
Still, this year both agencies' reservoirs have reached their lowest level since 1992.
Dwindling supplies will have to be routed to cities to ensure residents, hospitals and fire crews have enough to meet minimum health and safety needs, said Don Glaser, the bureau's regional director for the Mid-Pacific Region.
The water shortages are so severe most cities will have to start up mandatory ration programs by summertime, and all Californians will be asked to reduce the amount of water they use by 20 percent, Snow said.
"You've got to think about water as a precious resource," Snow said. "It may seem a stretch to conserve 20 percent of your water, but that's nothing in comparison to the consequences of the drought and job loss in agriculture."