SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Drought is once again knocking on the doors of California farmers, who provide the nation's supermarkets with more than half of their produce.
A year after record rainfall put an end to a seven-year dry spell that was one of California's worst droughts on record, some farmers here will get only one-third of the water they have contracted to receive from the state -- water they desperately need to irrigate their fields in a state that receives virtually no rain during the growing season.
The reason for the cutbacks: The state received about half its normal precipitation during the 1993-94 rainy season, which officially ended May 1. That makes 1994 a "critically dry year" by state standards.
The only thing keeping state water officials from declaring a drought emergency are good supplies of water on reserve. The state's 155 major reservoirs are at 95% of normal levels. But this won't help farmers. Strong laws are in place to keep much of that water right where it is. Otherwise, state officials say, drought conditions will surely return in 1995, which would result in mandatory water rationing and even less water for the farmers next year.
What does all this mean for consumers of fresh produce from California? Not much, at least for now, say agriculture officials.
"The water cutbacks shouldn't have a significant impact on supplies or prices of produce," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the Sacramento-based California Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm organization, representing 75,000 members.
"There really shouldn't be a discernible impact felt at supermarkets this year," he said. "The concern we have is the cumulative impact over many years as farmers may choose to cut production or go out of business."
Kranz pointed out that many farmers this year will opt for planting higher value crops from which they can get the best return from the reduced supplies of water. Farmers who typically plant grains, for example, may turn to fruit and vegetable crops that command higher margins. But such a move won't sustain the industry, he warned.
The problems will come down the road as farmers run out of sources for water or run out of money to buy it. Even though 1993 saw record-breaking precipitation, it was only enough to replenish reservoirs that had been depleted during the drought years. There was no surplus for state farmers.
As a result, the state and federal water projects -- which supply about 25% of the water used by farmers -- continued to impose drought-time cutbacks last year. "So, in effect, the drought has never really ended for state farmers," Kranz said.
The only savior for farmers has been the ability to buy water from local sources or to pump water from underground supplies. These two options come with high costs -- costs that have come right out of a farmer's margins for the last eight or nine years, said Kranz.
Some farmers have found they can no longer afford to stay in business, state officials say. And, as costs are anticipated to increase, the outlook is bleak for the future of many farming in a state racked by drought and recession.