As drought rages, California farmers find ways to conserve water

California Governor Jerry Brown has imposed water use restrictions for the first time in the state's history. The drought’s impact on California agriculture has placed a spotlight on the importance of investment in the land-grant universities, which have a tradition as centers agricultural research and knowledge. 

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Houseboats float in the drought-lowered waters of Oroville Lake near Oroville, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday April 1, 2015 ordered sweeping and unprecedented measures to save water in California.

California, spurred by the drought ravaging the state’s agriculture for a third year, is refocusing its water conservation efforts.

“This drought has brought home to more people the truth that California is a dry place and we are not going to have all the water we want,” said Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California-Davis and director of its Center for Watershed Sciences.
According to Lund, limiting the use of groundwater (found in aquifers beneath the surface) in wetter years allows replenishment of groundwater basins, so municipalities and farms can later draw upon them during drought conditions.

Agriculture’s unrelenting exploitation of groundwater has diminished its ability to be tapped during dry years and serve as a buffer against drought, said Richard Walker, professor emeritus of geography at UC-Berkeley and author of The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California. Historically, groundwater extraction went unregulated, in large part due to the influence of powerful agribusiness interests.

Even though groundwater extraction rate jumped by 50 percent over the past few years—a typical response to drought—it is still insufficient to meet the demand of the agriculture sector.

In fact, Walker explained, the current adverse impact on agriculture is a manifestation of years of imprudent, unchecked groundwater pumping, and not solely due to the current drought, which, by historical standards, is not the most severe.

“The philosophy for 100 years was, 'Supply engineering to provide water all the time, in all years,'” said Walker. “It’s been ‘pump as you may’—those with more capital to drill deeper will out-pump the little guy whose wells will go dry.”

This exhaustion of aquifers during non-drought years has meant that, under the current circumstances, farmers have had to drill ever-deeper to access water, according to Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources. But greater depths mean a more expensive process, leaving lower-income farmers at a disadvantage.

To address the overuse of groundwater, in September 2014 the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, mandating that local water agencies in areas with depleted basins develop plans within five years for overcoming this problem. Of California’s 500 groundwater basins, 130 fall into this category warranting urgent action, Lund said.

The drought’s impact on California agriculture has placed a spotlight on the importance of public investment in the land-grant universities, which have a long tradition as centers for dissemination of agricultural research and knowledge. California, as with other states, has an expansive statewide network of experts working on areas ranging from crop management to irrigation technology. Farmers benefit from direct contact with the universities' extension officers, who advise them on best practices.

The University of California’s Cooperative Extension, for example, has hosted over 150 workshops totaling over 10,000 attendees, said Parker, who also noted that the UC system has been addressing water issues since 1880.

“Everyone gets to see the importance of this network during drought conditions,” Lund said. “It gets a little more visibility. [The land-grant system] has a long-term foundational mission for prosperity of agriculture in the state.”

To maximize dollar value per acre during this dry period, farmers have switched to higher-valued crops like tomatoes, which witnessed a record-high production in the state last year, Lund said. Buyers have been adjusting their usual contracts to specifically seek out tomato growers with more water access.

Farmers have been aiming to maintain the same level of production of perennial crops (which grow for more than one year) as in wetter seasons because of their high value—and, in turn, the steep costs of losing them, according to Kurt Schwabe, professor of environmental economics and policy at UC-Riverside. In California, grapes and almonds are the most lucrative perennials, with sales totaling about US$4.4 billion each per year. By contrast, the acreage of most annual crops is typically tied to rainfall conditions, with drought years seeing diminished cropland devoted to them.

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