‘Big risk’: California farmers hit by drought change planting plans

By Norma Galeana and Christopher Walljasper

FIREBAUGH, Calif. (Reuters) – Joe Del Bosque is leaving a third of his 2,000-acre farm near Firebaugh, California, unseeded this year due to extreme drought. Yet, he hopes to access enough water to produce a marketable melon crop.

Farmers across California say they expect to receive little water from state and federal agencies that regulate the state’s reservoirs and canals, leading many to leave fields barren, plant more drought-tolerant crops or seek new income sources all-together.

“We’re taking a big risk in planting crops and hoping the water gets here in time,” said Del Bosque, 72.

Agriculture is an important part of California’s economy and the state is a top producer of vegetables, berries, nuts and dairy products. The last major drought from 2012 to 2017 reduced irrigation supplies to farmers, forced strict household conservation measures and stoked deadly wildfires.

California farmers are allocated water from the state based on seniority and need, but farmers say water needs of cities and environmental restrictions reduce agricultural access.

Nearly 40% of California’s 24.6 million acres of farmland are irrigated, with crops like almonds and grapes in some regions needing more water to thrive.

“I’m going to be reducing some of our almond acreage. I may be increasing some of our row crops, like tomatoes,” said Stuart Woolf, who operates 30,000 acres, most of it in Western Fresno County. He may fallow 30% of his land.

Del Bosque, who grows melons, asparagus, sweet corn, almonds and cherries, said his operation could lose more than half a million dollars in income, and put many of his 700 workers out of work. He and other farmers say drought has been exacerbated by California’s lack of investment in water storage infrastructure over the last 40 years.

“Fundamentally, a storage project is paid for by the people who want the water,” said Jeanine Jones, drought manager for California’s Department of Water Resources. “All we can do is deliver what mother nature provides.”

New dams face environmental restrictions meant to protect endangered fish and other wildlife, and don’t solve near-term water needs, said Ernest Conant, regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, California-Great Basin region, the federal agency that overseas dams, canals and water allocations in the Western United States.

“We simply don’t have enough water to supply our agricultural users,” said Conant. “We’re hopeful some water can be moved sooner than October, but there’s no guarantees.”

Water scarcity threatens Del Bosque’s watermelon crop, which is due to be harvested in August. But it also has dire consequences for those planting it.

“If there is no water, there is no work. And for us farm workers, how are we going to support the family?” said 57-year-old Pablo Barrera, who was planting watermelons for Del Bosque.

Woolf said as the state continues to restrict water access, he’s exploring ways to generate income off the land he can no longer irrigate, including installing solar arrays and planting Agave, normally grown in Mexico to make tequila.

“You’ve got to absorb all of your farming costs on the few acres that you’re farming,” he said. “How do we maximize the value of the land that we are not farming?”

(Reporting by Norma Galeana in Firebaugh, California and Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Diane Craft)

Flow of civilians from Falluja slows as IS tightens grip

Iraqi soldiers prepare to go to battle against Islamic State militants at the frontline in Falluja, Iraq, June 14, 2016. R

By Stephen Kalin and Isabel Coles

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – About 40,000 residents of Falluja, Islamic State’s besieged stronghold near Baghdad, have fled in the last three weeks, but a similar number are trapped despite the Iraqi army’s attempts to secure escape routes for them, officials said on Tuesday.

Officials in Anbar province, where Falluja is located, said Islamic State was tightening control over civilian movement in the center where the United Nations and a provincial official estimate around 40,000 civilians are stuck with little food or water.

The group has used residents as human shields to slow the troops’ advance and thwart the air campaign backing them.

By midday on Tuesday fewer than 1,000 people had fled Falluja through a southwestern route secured by the military on Sunday at al-Salam Junction, a Norwegian aid group said, down from 4,000 and 3,300 on each of the previous two days.

The United Nations recently put the total population at 90,000 people, a fraction of its size before IS took over.

The army, counter-terrorism forces and Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary fighters backed by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition launched a major operation last month to retake the mainly Sunni city, an hour’s drive from Baghdad.

But Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi slowed the advance to protect civilians amid fears of sectarian violence, and Iraqi forces have made only piecemeal gains in recent days as they try to reach the city center.

Most of those displaced on Tuesday came from the outskirts, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which is providing aid to escapees at nearby camps who join around four million others displaced across the country.

Islamic State has alternately attacked civilians trying to leave and forced them to pay an exit tax of more than $100 per person, said Karl Schembri, an NRC spokesman.

“The journey is still full of risks and extremely unsafe,” he said in an email.


Falih al-Essawi, deputy head of the Anbar provincial council, said the militants had threatened to shoot fleeing families.

Aid groups providing food, water and other supplies to escapees do not have access to the city itself, which was besieged by government forces for around six months before the current advance began, prompting the United Nations and rights groups to warn about an imminent humanitarian crisis.

“The fighting has now gone on for nearly three weeks. Those people were in trouble before the operation began and we have to now assume that they are in terrible trouble,” Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said in a telephone interview.

Iraq said on Monday it had made arrests as it investigates allegations that Shi’ite militiamen helping the army retake Falluja had executed dozens of Sunni Muslim men fleeing the city held by Islamic State.

The participation of militias in the battle of Falluja, just west of Baghdad, alongside the Iraqi army had already raised fears of sectarian killings.

Falluja is a historic bastion of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces that toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003, and the Shi’ite-led governments that followed.

The push on Falluja comes at the same time as other enemies of Islamic State launched major offensives on other fronts, including a push by U.S.-backed forces against the city of Manbij in northern Syria.

They amount to the most sustained pressure on the militants since they proclaimed their caliphate in 2014.


While it kept focus on Falluja, the Iraqi army also pressed on with an advance south of Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto capital seized in 2014 along with a third of Iraq’s territory.

Backed by coalition airstrikes and artillery, Iraqi forces retook the hilltop village of Nasr on the eastern bank of the river Tigris, about 275 kilometers (170 miles) north of Baghdad, a military statement said. The army had recaptured Nasr two months ago but retreated a day later, drawing criticisms that it was unprepared.

The army was still pushing to retake another village in the Haj Ali area, which it pushed into at the weekend.

Across the river is the Islamic State hub of Qayara, where there is an airfield that could serve as a staging ground for the future offensive on Mosul, about 60 kilometers further north.

“The bridges are ready,” said an Iraqi officer involved in the operation. “When we occupy the Qayara base, Mosul will be within reach”.

The officer said Islamic State had not mounted a strong defense of Haj Ali, and that more than 20 fighters had been killed, while others fled across the river. “Our intelligence says that they are collapsing,” he said.

Elite Iraqi forces are also preparing to advance up the Tigris river valley towards Qayara from the south, military officials said on Tuesday.

If successful, the move would isolate the militant-held districts of Hawija and Shirqat from the rest of the territory Islamic State controls to the west.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Saif Hameed, editing by Peter Millership)