The first wave of a powerful Pacific storm brought desperately needed rain and snow to southern California late this week, and urban communities endangered by wildfire just weeks ago now face the threat of mudslides. The barren mountain slopes looming above some neighborhoods in Glendora and Azusa were still holding after the first bout of rain, but mandatory evacuation orders were issued Thursday for about 1,000 homes.
For those farther away from the foothills the showers offered a brief reprieve from the worst drought in recorded history. But in the Central Valley – an agricultural juggernaut that is home to much of America’s fruit and vegetable production – the rain is simply too little, too late for some growers.
With California’s agricultural heartland locked in drought, almond producers are letting orchards wither, and in some cases, making the tough call to rip their trees out of the ground.
Central Valley almond farmer Barry Baker was one of many growers who hired a crew to perform the grim task. Baker removed 20 percent of his trees before their prime because there’s simply not enough water to satisfy his 5,000 acres of almonds.
Barry Baker, Firebaugh, California: “I just knew it would be tough to find water for these trees this year. And I’m glad I pulled them out now because it’s just impossible to find water.”
Baker has tried other options as well. He’s dug several wells to pump groundwater, but the quality is poor and there isn’t enough.
Leaving the orchards un-watered and expecting them to survive the drought isn’t an option he says. Insects infest the dying trees and multiply, spreading to other orchards.
Southern California did get a much-needed soaking this week and residents are preparing for a more powerful storm that could bring heavier rain over the weekend. Rain fell throughout the day Wednesday in San Francisco and midday showers drenched the Santa Cruz Mountains south of the Bay Area.
There are no figures yet to show an exact number of orchards being removed, but the economic stakes and risks facing growers are clear. Almonds and other nuts are among the highest-value crops in the Central Valley. And the biggest producer of such crops in the nation. In 2012, California’s almond crop had an annual value of $5 billion.
Barry Baker, Firebaugh, California: “Everybody on the west side will be broke if it continues. There will be a lot of guys that will go broke this year.”
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced late last week that it will not be providing Central Valley farmers with any water from the federal system of reservoirs and canals fed by mountain runoff.