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Rain Relieves, but No Remedy For California Drought

When it rains, it pours. After more than three years of drought, California has had so much rain and flooding this week that the San Joaquin Valley, the setting of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," is more like the "Grapes of Rafts."

Cars and commercial trucks make their way through the flooded southbound lanes of the 710 Long Beach Freeway, the main artery to Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, on January 20, 2010 in Long Beach, California.
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Cars and commercial trucks make their way through the flooded southbound lanes of the 710 Long Beach Freeway, the main artery to Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, on January 20, 2010 in Long Beach, California.

"It's still a drop in the bucket," says Greg Wegis, a fifth generation farmer whose great grandfather settled here from Oklahoma. Wegis grows alfalfa, wheat, almonds and pistachios, and he's seen underground water levels drop 120 feet in some places due to drought.

Not all of the drought is natural. The state slashed water allocations from the Sacramento Delta at least 70 percent last year to help save a small endangered fish called the Delta smelt.

Farmers who had no groundwater were out of luck, and many didn't plant all their acreage. Bill Diedrich is a farmer near Firebaugh, where unemployment has hit 40 percent due in part to the cutback in agriculture. He ended up mowing down peach trees because they couldn't produce enough income to pay the water bill.

"We just pushed then out with a Caterpillar and made them sawdust," he says.

This year, farmers here say the state is promising to give them only 5 percent of their usual allotment of water.

"If it stays at 5 percent we're probably going to have to spend another $350,000 and drill another well," Wegis says, thankful there is still underground water on his property.

But the state could end up giving farmers a lot more water if enough snow falls in the Sierra Nevadas, snow which melts in the spring and waters much of the central and southern parts of California.

"What I've heard is the best case scenario is we'll get 30 to 40 percent," of the usual allotment, Wegis says.

By the way, Wegis and his cousin, Mike Young, have a side business selling drilling and pumping equipment. "I would say we had our best year last year," he says.

But he says that longterm, more storage needs to be created in the Central Valley to capture more of the melting snowpack. Too much of that water flows out to the ocean.

It's not clear if a proposed $11 billion water bond Governor Schwarzenegger is asking voters to approve will go towards that kind of infrastructure.

"There's a ton of pork that's glommed onto this particular bill," says Marilyn Cohen, founder and CEO of Envision Capital Management. "The state is in such fiscal disarray that voters are really getting uptight, but bond holders are getting even more uptight."

She says that even if voters approve issuing another $11 billion in debt, in the face of a $20 billion deficit, the annual interest payments will cost Californians $800 million.

"What our state representatives don't get is it's over!" she says. "We cannot continue to answer our debt problems with additional debt."

Still, farmers are happy that Mother Nature, at least, is finally having a change of heart about California and bringing some rain. But they're not as happy as you might think.

"We actually have a better crop in drought years because the weather is more predictable," says Wegis, who says rain brings insects and disease. "We're better off when the snow pack in the mountains (is large) and we can transport that water into the valley and aquifer that way."