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As Surface Water Supplies Dry Up, California Rice Growers Worry About Ripple Effect

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – California's drought is impacting more than how you water your lawn, but also the way your food is grown on hundreds of thousands of acres in the Sacramento Valley.

Growing rice is a multi-billion dollar industry that supports 25,00 jobs.

"Farmers are eternal optimists to risk so much with so many things out of your control," said Fritz Durst.

Durst is trying to keep his spirits up in a down year.

"Normally I would sprinkle my crops in four-hour sets. This year, I put them on 12-hour sets and within a week it was as if I didn't even put any water on them," he said.

This year, a third of normal rainfall combined with hot weather and drying winds have him pumping more groundwater than usual and fallowing half his rice fields - meaning Durst won't plant, and he's not alone.

"Most of California is going to have little or no water from surface supplies," said David Guy with the Northern California Water Association.

Industry leaders say this is the third time in forty years this kind of surface water supply reduction has happened - and it's happened twice in just the last decade.

"We're facing a year, this year, where we'll grow 100,000-less acres of rice because of multiple years of low rainfall and low snowpack," said Tim Johnson, CEO of the California Rice Commission.

They are worried about the ripple effect a lack of water will have on the $5 billion industry.

"There's a lot of small towns north of Sacramento and they rely on agriculture - on rice - for the jobs for milling, for processing, for shipping, and for the airplanes that we're seeing today," Johnson said.

Each of them small businesses also struggling to grow in a drought year where work is drying up.

"They have payments to make, too, just like we have on our houses," Durst said. "And if only get 50-60% work, that business owner has to go into his pocket to pay for it."

Farmers have done what they could, using GPS technology to make sure rice fields are flat and growing more efficiently.

"If the environment gets better, we get better," said Durst.

Industry leaders are also concerned about how the drought will impact wildlife that feeds in the rice fields. The Pacific Flyway serves as a habitat for 5-7 million ducks and geese each winter.

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