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Drought forces California farmers to idle cropland

The price of California farm goods, including fresh fruits and vegetables is likely to rise

Drought-stricken California farmers facing drastic cutbacks in irrigation water are expected to idle some 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) of cropland this year in a record production loss that could cause billions of dollars in economic damage, industry officials said.

Large-scale crop losses in California, the No. 1 U.S. farm state producing half the nation’s fruits and vegetables, would undoubtedly lead to higher consumer prices, especially for tree and vine produce grown only there. But experts say it is too soon to quantify the effect.

Coming off its driest year on record, California is gripped in a drought that threatens to inflict the worst water crisis in state history, prompting Governor Jerry Brown last month to declare a state of emergency.

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He urged citizens to reduce their water consumption by 20 per cent voluntarily.

California water managers later said the drought would force an unprecedented cutoff in state-supplied water sold to 29 irrigation districts, public water agencies and municipalities, barring an unexpected turnaround.

Irrigation deliveries to another group of agricultural districts served by the state are expected to be reduced by half, and an even larger group of farmers who get water from the federally operated Central Valley Project are likewise bracing for sharp cutbacks this year.

“We’re in a dire situation that we’ve never been in before,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The state’s network of reservoirs that collect run-off of rainfall and snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range — the state’s biggest source of fresh water — is badly depleted.

So too are the underground aquifers that have provided farmers reserves when water was otherwise scarce.

Democrats and Republicans in the state are sharply divided on how to deal with the crisis, and there is also division within the ranks of each party.

From the Grainews website: Obama pledges help for drought-stricken California

At the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, an emergency bill by several California representatives that would roll back environmental protections for fish in the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in order to allow more water to be pumped out in dry years passed on Wednesday roughly along party lines, 229-191.

The bill, which will be immediately sent to the U.S. Senate, has been harshly criticized by Brown, who called it “unwelcome and intrusive.”

But supporters say environmental regulations caused the water shortages in the first place by limiting the amounts that can be pumped out of the delta when fish are threatened in drier years.

“It is unacceptable that vital water supplies are being forced out to the ocean instead of going to our cities,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, who represents agricultural and desert areas north of Los Angeles. “The issue demands immediate attention and today’s vote represents House Republicans’ commitment to putting California families over fish.”

Livestock producers are facing their own drought-related difficulties, including scant winter rain they rely on to grow grass for grazing their herds, industry officials say. Beef producers are being forced to ship much of their stock back east, while dairy producers face higher costs to purchase hay and feed.

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