Drought brings torrent of media attention to the Central Valley

June 17, 2021
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern

Share This: 

The drought in California is making headlines every day across the country, and for good reason: Almost the entire state is in severe drought. And the whole San Joaquin Valley is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories.

As journalists set their sights on California, many news stories highlight impacts on farmers, particularly those who have decided to tear out some of their crops as a result of the drought.

Most of the attention has fallen on Fresno County and Tulare County.

“We’ve had film crews here from France, the UK Mail, there was an Australian crew here last weekend,” said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. “And Getty Photo wants to go out and film cattlemen in dire straits.”

Stever Blattler said she has been getting five to 10 calls a week from media outlets intent on finding farmers pulling up crops for lack of water.

She speculated that this burst of media attention was spawned by an April 26 Los Angeles Times piece on how Tulare County farms are being impacted by the drought.

Facing a tight water year isn’t easy, but Stever Blattler said she hasn’t heard of farmers in her area pulling up crops or fallowing land. That’s because farmers in Tulare County mostly grow citrus or other trees. Farmers will likely stress their trees with less water this year and that could affect crop yields, she said, but they aren’t pulling the trees out of the ground for lack of water.

“Drought is a normal phenomenon for us,” she said.

California built its system of reservoirs to capture and hold snow melt over several years specifically to help the farms and towns weather these cyclical droughts. In recent years, however,  legislative and court decisions have prioritized environmental needs over those of farms and communities in the Central Valley making multi-year droughts more difficult to survive, Stever Blattler said.

“I know not everyone will agree with that,” she said.

True. Environmental groups often counter that agriculture has long overstepped its water bounds in pursuit of greater profits by over planting permanent crops such as almonds, pistachios and grapes putting a greater strain on the system.

Either way, Central Valley farming is getting its 15 minutes of fame.

In Fresno County, the Farm Bureau is fielding three to four media calls a day, according to Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. The calls are coming everywhere from local media outlets to international news bureaus.

That’s because Fresno County is “ground zero” when it comes to the drought, said Jacobsen.

Most reporters aren’t solely focused on farmers tearing out crops, but it’s a common question. And Jacobsen does know some growers who have had to pull out permanent crops. But he still  thinks it’s too early to understand all the impacts.

Jacobsen thinks the effects on farmers will compound as time goes on. And if next year is anything like this year, he said he can’t imagine what the consequences will be.

A 350-acre block of almond trees in western Fresno County being ripped out in 2021 for lack of water. COURTESY: Ryan Jacobsen, Executive Director, Fresno County Farm Bureau

Elsewhere in the valley, media attention has been much slower.

In Kings County, Dusty Ference has only received a few calls from reporters so far. Farmers aren’t taking out crops as a result of the drought there, said Ference, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau. But they definitely aren’t planting either.

Ference said many growers in the county have decided to forgo planting summer crops because of the lack of water.

“The decision to plant or not is part of the business of farming in our area,” said Ference.

What isn’t as normal, is the lack of surface water. Ference said some irrigation districts fed by the Kings River aren’t running any surface water this year because of how low reservoirs are.

And in March, the state announced it would only provide 5% of contracted water allotments through the State Water Project that serves ag lands mostly on the west side of the valley as well as metropolitan areas in southern California. The Bureau of Reclamation dropped its 5% allocation for ag contractors in the northern part of the valley, such as the Westlands Water District, to 0 on May 2 6.

On June 11, the Fresno Irrigation District, which relies on Kings River water from Pine Flat reservoir above Sanger, announced it would be ending most agricultural water deliveries on June 30 for lack of water.

Executive directors from the Madera County and Merced County farm bureaus said they’ve had little to no contact from the media and that they haven’t heard of farmers pulling out crops there.

As in Tulare, most crops in Madera County are permanent citrus or nut trees. Permanent crops take years to mature and taking them out of production can be a big loss for farmers.

“Folks are trying to get through the year, hoping to not suffer too much loss under the current conditions,” said Christina Beckstead, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, in an email.

The Stanislaus County Farm Bureau was involved in a local Sacramento television segment, but otherwise there hasn’t been much media attention on that county, according to Tom Orvis, governmental affairs director of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.

While many growers can make do this year, the drought emphasizes how difficult future years will be, said Orvis. Especially with the added pressure of looming groundwater restrictions.

The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires aquifers in overdrafted areas come into balance by 2040, meaning more water can’t be pumped out than goes back in. That will restrict water availability even more in drought years, and Orvis said there is a lot of fear around what that will look like for farmers.

“We’re barely comfortable for this year,” said Orvis. “What next year brings, who knows?

— SJV Water Editor/CEO Lois Henry contributed to this report.

Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter & Get Email Notifications

Enter your email address to receive INSTANT ALERTS of new articles and to be added to SJV Water’s WEEKLY NEWSLETTER