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US (CA): Dry year could spell trouble down the road

Lower-than-average precipitation is never good when it comes to California's growers, though growers have fared relatively well despite a dry 2013. But if conditions don't improve next year and growers don't have access to more water, the state's growers could find themselves in a bind.

“Our concern going forward is that if we don't get water in our reservoirs, we could look at serious issues next year,” said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual. He noted that citrus growers have done alright this year, despite little rainfall.

“We can still irrigate if there's no rain, and right now we have water to meet our needs,” said Blakely. “But if we have a dry winter with little snowfall and limited rain, then we'll be set up for serious issues next year.” Aside from the obvious concerns that water scarcity brings, a water shortage poses unique problems for California's citrus growers.

“If there are water shortages during winter, there won't be water to run in the groves to protect against freeze damage, so growers won't have that ability to warm up orchards,” explained Blakely. “Less water would force growers to make choices about what to protect.” Less water would likely mean more fruit lost to frost damage.

California's avocado growers are also worried about the possibility of less water. Ken Melban, director of issues management for the California Avocado Commission, noted that avocado growers have been dealing with water scarcity for quite some time, though most of the pain has been felt by growers in the southern part of the state.

“Southern growers pay more for water than those farther north,” said Melban. “Water shortages really impact those in the southern part of the California delivery system.” The prospect of less water would make a challenging situation all the more difficult, according to Melban, especially with water making up around 70 percent of some growers' input costs.

“We've faced this challenge for several years, and it's been increasing in pressure,” said Melban. “But we're doing things to mitigate that pressure, and growers are making changes to ensure they're doing the most with the water they're getting.” That includes high density planting, investing in more efficient equipment, bringing down canopy heights, researching salinity-resistant varieties and a slew of other techniques designed to increase productivity in the face of diminishing inputs. The state's growers are dealing with the looming water crisis with adaptations to blunt the effects of less water. Blakely also noted that changes are needed in order to deal with less water in the future.

“Water is a big issue right now,” said Blakely. “Ground water regulations are being put in place, and the state's looking at revising the water plan. Water is going to be a big issue in terms of conserving it and ensuring supplies in the future.”

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