JACKI LYDEN, host:

California is struggling to deal with another resource in danger of disappearing: water. The state is in the third year of severe drought, and it's especially rough in the western San Joaquin Valley, where much of the nation's lettuce and tomatoes and almonds are grown.

Yesterday, the federal government told farmers there that they may not get any water for irrigation in the crucial growing weeks ahead.

From member station, KQED, Sasha Khokha has the story.

SASHA KHOKHA: It's hard to remember California's in a drought when it's been raining for the last few weeks, making for some very slick mud on John Marring's(ph) farm in West Fresno County. It sticks to my boots in thick clumps, and I practically skate across an empty tomato field lined with deep furrows.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

KHOKHA: But Marring knows the recent rain is not enough. He's trying to figure out what to do with all the lush seedlings in his greenhouse if he can't water 300 acres of land, where he usually plants tomatoes.

Mr. JOHN MARRING: But this field is prepared. You can see a few weeds starting to come. Typically, we'd come in here with some light tools and work the bed two or three times, and then we'd transplant the tomatoes into it. But at this point, we're just kind of on hold.

KHOKHA: Normally, he'd nurture this field with water from the federally managed Central Valley Project that pumps water to this valley from the Northern California mountains. But this year, he may have to make do with no federal water. A very dry January and a light snowpack in the Sierra mean California's reservoirs are less than half as full as normal.

Marring has a little water left over from last year, but that'll go to save his almond orchards just across the road. Lately, almond prices have been crashing as tomato prices are rising. But Marring's got to think long-term about what to save.

Mr. MARRING: These almond orchards take five or six years to develop, and they're very expensive, and then just one serious drought situation like that - this orchard would die, and it would not recover.

KHOKHA: This region also provides 95 percent of the nation's spring and fall lettuce, and farmers here say they may plant half their usual acreage. Growers may not bring in bees to pollinate some almond trees, either. All this may mean higher prices for consumers. And if farmers don't plant labor-intensive crops like tomatoes, that could mean fewer jobs for farm workers. One recent study projects the San Joaquin Valley could lose 40,000 jobs because of the drought.

On Marring's farm, foreman Manuel Garcia(ph) says he's already had to lay off seven workers and won't be hiring any crews to harvest tomatoes this year.

Mr. MANUEL GARCIA (Farm Foreman): (Through translator) The drought is having a huge impact on the families. They're suffering and running out of money. They're having to move away, back to Mexico or to another state where there are jobs.

KHOKHA: But in California, there's just not enough water to feed all its farms and cities and protect the endangered species that live in its waterways.

Bill Jennings is with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. He says California agriculture has to come to grips with its future.

Mr. BILL JENNINGS (Executive Director, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance): We've passed out water rights in California like Wall Street's passed out bonuses. We've just not come to terms with the world of limitation, that we've come to depend or promised far, far more water than actually exists.

KHOKHA: Back on John Marring's farm, it's starting to sprinkle again, but Marring's worried the rain won't be enough to fill the state's reservoirs.

Mr. MARRING: We've got to produce again to compete against the rest of the world. And with our water costs continually rising and more and more competition for it, it will take California out of the agricultural picture.

KHOKHA: That may be overstating it. The water cutoff could end after a few weeks if it keeps raining and the feds adjust their delivery estimates. But even so, farmers here probably won't get more than 10 percent of the water they were hoping would be delivered.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.

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