This year Fresno County was able to balance its budget while restoring programs and positions. After years of tough budgets and painful decisions, I wish I could say it was a relief, but instead I am fearful of what could happen next year.
Agriculture is our economic engine, and it is something we need to celebrate. Our soil and climate create ideal growing conditions. Not only is agriculture a true economic asset, it is a renewable resource that provides the world with a safe and life-sustaining product while providing jobs for thousands and adding to our county’s tax rolls. The terrifying thing is that our prosperity is being threatened and most are unaware of the fact that a potentially cataclysmic tidal wave is fast approaching.
With one in seven jobs in Fresno County dependent on agriculture, dry weather and regulatory water cuts are taking a mounting toll on our ability to not only feed the world but to feed ourselves. Our productive and vital farms are forced to idle fields and workers, and if the prediction of 0% westside water allocations in 2014 holds true, we will begin the most debilitating recession in our history.
If our westside communities dry up, so will the tax base. As each percent of our $6.5 billion agriculture industry falls, Fresno County will cease to be able to provide the necessary resources to provide for our residents.
Four years ago in 2009, westside farmers saw their supply of water plummet to 10% of what their contracts called for from the federal Central Valley Project. Thousands of farmworkers lost their jobs because hundreds of thousands of acres were left unplanted. Those who have worked in the fields were forced to stand in food lines. It remains incomprehensible that those who are so vital to putting food on our tables were faced with such despair.
Other Central Valley counties whose farmers rely on water from the federal supply system also are facing the same possibility of dropping ag values from 2012: Madera, $1.7 billion; Merced, $3 billion; Kings, $2.2 billion; and Kern $6.2 billion.
Much of the water that flows to these farms originates from Lake Shasta in Northern California. This water supply has been erratic in recent years because of government regulations that prevent water from moving through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to many farms and 25 million Californians from the Central Valley to Southern California.
Weather forecasters are indicating that this winter could be devastating in terms of adding water to our state’s reservoirs. U.S. Bureau of Recreation officials, who oversee the delivery of water to westside farms, are predicting lower water allocations for next year.
The fear among farmers is that water deliveries could dry up completely, placing $6.5 billion in crop production on both the east and west sides of Fresno County at risk.
State water officials are working with water agencies and some environmental groups to complete a plan called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The centerpiece features two underground tunnels that would route water from the Sacramento River before it enters the maze of delta islands and channels.
This effort has been ongoing for more than seven years and has involved the work of scientists, biologists and engineers to develop a means of getting water through the delta while preserving and even improving the regions’ ecosystem. This delivery system would greatly reduce the threat to fish species and would reinstate water deliveries to westside farms up to their contract levels.
These steps, along with the addition of much-needed water storage, will change our water outlook, secure our long-term economic base and allow continued growth in our region. Until those solutions are complete, we can pray for rain — a lot of rain this winter.
And we can also pray that, unlike this year, those regulating our water supply won’t send it out to the ocean, but will fill up our reservoirs instead.
Finally, we need to educate ourselves on the significance of water to our way of life. We need to continue to emphasize the importance of agriculture to our economy, the economy of our state, and the safety and well-being of our nation’s food supply.