Water Supply Increases for Fresno County Westside Farmers

By Norma Yuriar

Fresno County, Calif.{} (KMPH News) Valley farmers thirsty for water will have some coming their way and you can blame it on the rain and snow.{} A series of storms have replenished many California reservoirs making quality water available to central valley growers.

"There is ground that was not farmed last year that's going to get farmed this year and so there will be more production and more jobs out here," Paul Betancourt said.

Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced farmers on Fresno County's Westside will receive a 25% allocation of water in the coming weeks, up from an earlier projection of just 5%.

The Westlands Water District represents the largest growing region on the Westside of the valley.{} It estimates 20,000 farm jobs were lost in the past year and a half.{} Growers say having more water flow into their fields is a good start, but it's going to take a lot more than 25% to repair the damage already done.

At VF Farms in Fresno County, the lack of quality water has forced Betancourt to irrigate crops using ground water which left patches of salt on the soil.

"The only way to get the salt out is by flushing it with more water," he said.

But, the precious resource has been scarce for Betancourt and other local growers.

"We've changed our crop mix, we have cut back on cotton tremendously and we started growing wheat because we can irrigate the wheat in the winter and the cotton in the summer," Betancourt said.

In the past four years the Fresno County farmer has seen the amount of "quality" water trickle down from 100% allocation in 2006 to a projected 5% in 2010.{} Now, for the first time in years growers are seeing those numbers rise again.

"The Bureau of Reclamation announced we could have a 25% water allocation," Sarah Woolf with Westlands Water District said.{} "That's a significant increase for our growers.{} It's not enough in any way, but it makes a big difference especially when growers go in to get bank loans and try to get financing for the upcoming crop year."

Not sure if he was getting more water Betancourt planned ahead.

"We went out and borrowed $200,000 to stick a new well in the ground this year.{} I don't have the money, I have to borrow it which means I'm further in debt, which means I have more years of making loan payments.{} I'd really rather not do that but that's the only way I can be sure of protecting our ability to keep producing," he said.

Drought and federal restrictions to protect an endangered fish are behind the shortage.{} More rain could mean even more water for farmers in the Westlands Water District.{} The Bureau of Reclamation is expected to make that announcement in April.