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The Central Valley News Collaborative includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, Valley Public Radio and Radio Bilingüe. The project was announced in late 2020 and began its work in 2021 with the Collaborative's reporters shining a light on how the Central Valley’s communities of color have been disproportionately impacted, physically and financially, by COVID-19. The Collaborative is now exploring how the drought and climate change could reshape the valley, and the lives of the people who work in the agriculture industry. The Collaborative is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation, with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Fresno County farmers at a ‘crossroads’ as drought, climate change limit water supply

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Farmer Joe Del Bosque checks a drip line irrigating his almond trees at his farm in western Fresno County, Oct. 12, 2021. JOHN WALKER JWALKER@FRESNOBEE.COM

 

Joe Del Bosque has owned his farm west of Mendota for 36 years. He’s grown cherries, tomatoes and asparagus. But the crop closest to his heart is melons. His dad began growing melons in the Mendota area in the 1950s. 

“They've been in my blood for all my life, you know, so I feel a very intimate relationship with melons,” he says. 

He now owns 2,000 acres of land on both sides of Interstate 5. Typically, Del Bosque and other farmers on the west side of Fresno County receive their water through the Central Valley Project. That water flows from northern California to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and gets pumped through a network of canals.

Three decades ago, Del Bosque and other farmers on the west side began experiencing water cutbacks. They had to change how they watered crops. But now, conditions are getting worse and growers are making hard decisions about water and their crops

Farmers adjusting to water restrictions in west Fresno County

On a windy Tuesday morning, Del Bosque gives us a tour of his farm and his water infrastructure. At times he has to hold onto his wide-brim hat to prevent it from flying away in a gust of wind. 

He hops out of his white Chevy SUV and walks towards a row of trees. He bends down to grab a black tube laying near the base of the trees.

“This is a drip on our almonds,” he says, as he holds up a piece of the drip irrigation system that he installed nearly 15 years ago to save water.  

But in 2021, that’s not enough. This year is the second-driest in California history, according to a recent report from the state Department of Water Resources. Due to the drought, federal officials in May said growers would receive 0% of their water supply allocation from the Central Valley Project.  

“We had to go find water to buy from other farmers in Northern California that were willing to sell us some water, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to survive,” Del Bosque says. 

He says water is now costing him four times more than normal. He usually pays $200 an acre-foot for water from the Central Valley Project, but this year he says he paid other farmers nearly $800 an acre-foot.   

And still, he says one-third of his 2,000 acres went unplanted this year. 

Farmers cut out crops to survive  

Our tour of the farm continues in Del Bosque’s car. He drives us across I-5. 

“This is my field right here, the bare one here,” he says, as he points to an empty field where melons are typically grown. “That field was not planted this year.” 

He says he didn’t plant nearly 300 acres of melons. And he cut out asparagus all together.

Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen says this is a reality for many farmers across the county. 

“What happens in these droughts is that farmers are going to divert whatever water they do have available to their higher valuable longer-term investments,” he says, referring to crops like nut trees and grape vines. 

That means certain crops may not grow in the Central Valley in the next five to ten years. He says that should worry people.

“We are at a time or a crossroads where it looks like we're going to see a significant reduction in the amount of food that we grow here in the valley,” Jacobsen says.

Back on the farm, Joe Del Bosque is at his own crossroads. While rain is predicted for the Central Valley in the coming days, experts are predicting another dry winter. Del Bosque knows the decisions he makes will impact his family business as well as his 15 full-time employees and additional seasonal  workers. 

“Maybe you can fallow land, but you can't fallow people,” he says. 

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.
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