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California Rain Brings Limited Relief to Dried-Out Almond Farms

(Bloomberg) -- Usually, bouts of rain are a good thing for drought-stricken farmers. But in California, where a downpour has triggered widespread flooding, much of the water will end up in the sea rather than helping crops, like the state’s famed almond groves.

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The recent deluge highlights a decades-long dilemma: A lack of infrastructure to store and shuttle water to growers who produce three-quarters of US fruits and nuts and more than one-third of its vegetables. Nuts are among the most water-intensive crops in the state, and California’s annual almond harvest accounts for about 80% of global production.

While the rain and snow are desperately needed after the driest three-year stretch on record and billions of dollars in crop losses, much of the precipitation will likely end up as runoff.

“Not only do we not have the ability to capture at all, but we don’t have the ability to convey it to locations for groundwater storage,” said Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation farmer who grows tomatoes, cotton, garlic and carrots across about 11,000 acres in the Central Valley.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has vowed to speed up efforts to capture more stormwater in the face of accelerating climate change and dwindling water supplies, but critics say the government isn’t moving fast enough. The state is making investments in water storage, but funding for the projects takes time and “has been the slowest out the door,” according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank.

Voters approved a $7.5 billion bond for water investments in 2014, with about one-third earmarked for storage including expanding the Sites Reservoir in Sacramento Valley, a farming hub for crops like rice and peaches. Construction isn’t expected to start until next year, though, and only a fraction of the funds have been spent so far.

Meanwhile, many growers last year had to leave fields unplanted, lay off workers and even sell off farms as water allotments were slashed.

“Who knows where California would be if Sites had been built today,” said Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. “We are seeing that lost opportunity in real time.”

--With assistance from Michael B. Marois.

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