(CN) - This year's crop may very well be the last for Brad Cravens. Along with his father, Sam, he's been growing Butte and Padre almonds on his 160-acre plot seven miles north of Kettleman City, Calif., for over a decade.
Without wells on his property, Cravens relies on solely on groundwater and water allocations from the Westlands Water District. He banked enough water last year to carry him through this season, but California's prolonged and debilitating drought has forced the water district, which holds long-running supply contracts with the Central Valley Project, to cut off allocations this year.
His father said, "We were smart and we banked water this year. But after this year, we're done."
"We'll make a crop this year and, if we can't get any water on the horizon, we'll pay off the mortgage and we'll own a ranch with dead trees on it," the son added.
Brad Cravens compared the drought to air slowly leaking from a hole in a tire. "You can fill it up, roll for a while, but in the end you're still going to go flat," he said, noting environmental regulations compounded with unusually dry winters have added up to disaster. "For the last six years we've had water problems - that's because of the manmade drought. Now we've got an act of God drought and it's a double whammy."
From the back seat of his son's truck, Sam Cravens pointed to a dry dirt field belonging to one of their neighbors. "This land if you can get water for it, it will grow anything - lettuce, tomatoes. Hasn't been anything on these fields for two years."
"It's a devastating year," said Gayle Holman with the Westlands Water District.
The San Luis Reservoir, part of the Central Valley Project's network of reservoirs, dams and pumping stations that supply water to California farmers, started out with a record low this winter, one of the reasons for the district's cutting water allocations, she added.
"That with the dry winter, we knew based off of that we were looking at zero," Holman said. "It's remained dry. Even though we had a nice blast of rainfall, it's not enough to catch up. Unfortunately we're anticipating this allocation to stay at zero, which is unthinkable."
About 70 miles northeast of Kettleman City, stone-fruit grower Rigo Rios sat with Orange Cove City Manager Sam Escobar in his upstairs office at the old Santa Fe Railway Depot that is now City Hall.
"I'm sitting here with Sam talking about how I'm literally going to South America to start my farming operation," Rios said, wryly referring to an exodus of farmers from the Central Valley to areas where they can work without the lingering threat of water shortages.
Rios, who grows plums, nectarines, peaches, table grapes and citrus northeast of the nearby town of Reedley, framed his situation in dire terms.
"My wells are running dry," he said. "There's literally no water coming down the pipe. It's scary, just very scary. I'm normally a pure grower, 100 percent farmer. I had to take on a consultation position with an import-export company just to continue. I'm just one of thousands and thousands of growers. All the citizens throughout the Central valley, we all desperately need water."
Agriculture supports the entire economy here, Rios added.
"That's the only reason people live here is because of the agriculture. I have a friend that works for Wells Fargo and they are already looking toward summer. They're going to start laying off employees because they're speculating farm laborers or workers are not going to have any water to send people out to work. So they will migrate, and the people who live here now are not going to be cashing checks or making deposits."
Rios' personal tale of the drought's trickle-down effect is at the forefront of Escobar's concerns for Orange Cove. "When the farmers don't have the fruit, they're not packing, not picking, then it all trickles down to the employees," Escobar said. "And then our local businesses won't have commerce as well because there won't be any money to be circulated, not only within our community but in the Central Valley as well."
For Mario Santoyo with the Latino Water Coalition, "the issue for Orange Cove isn't whether you have water to drink, it's whether you're going to have a job."
"The reason Orange Cove exists is to provide employment to the citrus industry," Santoyo added. "If there isn't water to keep the citrus industry going, the residents of these communities aren't going to have these jobs."
Orange Cove, a community of about 10,000 whose economy is 90 percent based on agriculture, relies on water deliveries from the Friant-Kern Canal, a Central Valley Project aqueduct managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The canal begins at the reservoir at Millerton Lake, which is impounded by Friant Dam. For Orange Cove, whose wells are contaminated with nitrates, Friant Dam is the only storage system available.
"Friant Dam is only about 5,000 acre feet that we can store in wet years, and so we throw away about 1 million acre feet into the ocean when we have wet years because we can't store it," Escobar said.
He pointed to a proposed dam at Temperance Flat near Millerton Lake as the solution to the storage problem.
"We can store in wet years and also do water recharging when it's available," Escobar said. "But they've been working on that for 10 years."
Santoyo, who is also assistant general manager of the Friant Water Authority, vociferously supports the long-sought dam. "A lot of water going to waste," she said. "There needs to be construction of a new reservoir at Temperance Flat that will keep us from going through these crises. It's just as important that we try to build infrastructure that keeps us from having this situation."
Back at the almond ranch on the valley's west side, Brad Cravens hears water is going for $1,000 per acre foot from private sellers.
"It's survival of the fittest, that's what it's going to be," Cravens said.
Sam Cravens, Brad's father, spoke to the historic tension between farmers on both sides of the San Joaquin River dividing the valley over water supplies. The west generally feels the sting of dry years more acutely than the east, with its proximity to the Sierra snowpack. "It's always been the east- versus west-side farmers," Cravens said. "They need to work together."