There is state in the west you can call the house of the rising sun. It has been a garden for many a transplant, and gosh I know I’m one.
I moved here in the early 80s and went straight to work in organic agriculture. I loved that it typically rained here only six months of the year. During those six months the state received three or four good soaking storms from the Pacific that filled the aquifers and reservoirs for the entire year. A good portion of the year California is known for its sunny skies and sublime weather. It is the perfect place to frolic and surf, or go wine tasting after hot air ballooning. It is also the perfect place to grow food.
In the last three years everything has changed. The state is in the grip of the worst drought since records have been scribed. Even if 2015 provides an ample drenching, it probably won’t give the producers and farmers of California much aquatic satisfaction.
California is the nation’s veritable garden. It’s that prolific place where more than half the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables are produced. Almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwifruit, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, raisins, clovers and walnuts are almost exclusively (99% or more) supplied from California producers. Without California’s luxuriant bounty the country and most of the world’s pantries would be a mighty dreary place.
A recent study published by the University of California at Davis highlights the plight for agriculture in California and underscores the dire ramifications for farmers and farm workers. “The Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture” estimates the total economic costs of the drought at $2.2 billion which takes into consideration the loss of 17,100 seasonal and part time jobs. It predicts that crop values of fruit and nut trees will decline by $277 million and losses to vegetables and non-tree fruit could be as high as $47 million.
The report concludes that “The 2014 drought is responsible for the greatest absolute reduction in water availability for California agriculture ever seen, given the high agricultural demands and the low stream flows and reservoir levels. Surface water availability is expected to be reduced by about one-third.”
What this means is that dairy farmers have had no grass to feed their bovine girls because the rolling hills are bone dry. Without this natural green bounty ranchers can’t afford to haul in supplemental feed. So the livestock are disappearing from the landscape, farmers are suffering and those California cows aren’t so happy any more.
The producers with trees that produce nuts and fruits are in a real pickle. They can’t just ship their trees to another state. In some areas, over 10% of the wells have run dry. Producers have been cut off from drawing water from the canals and are driven to buy and trade water rights, forcing the price of water to skyrocket. The Vallejo (Calif) Times-Herald reports that water costs have quadrupled as growers are forking over funds to cover costs as high as $3000 an acre foot when they typically pay $60. “If I didn’t buy that water, we’d have 800 acres of dead trees,” said Ray Flanders, who manages the generations-old Nunes Farms outside Modesto.
Recently the USDA announced $9.7 million in emergency water assistance grants for 25 rural communities in California. Not only will this money make farmers and ranchers eligible for emergency loans, but it will be used to foster practices to conserve water, protect fields from erosion and improve access to water for livestock.
Water has become a commodity in the Golden State just like gold or oil, and it is all about supply and demand. It may portend the future for the rest of the world and how we manage our most precious resource. Perhaps the situation can be a roadmap for the other water scarce landscapes and futures?
California doesn’t have to be the place of the rising sun where many a poor farmer has to gamble the crop, her family or the land to the whims of the climate. With better planning and conservation the needs of our rural producers and urban dwellers can be fully addressed. We must work together as a state and region to conserve our collective water-shed. We must imagine and implement more efficient water retention and storage plans to capture the rain and conserve it for the dry seasons and the dry years. California must utilize outreach, education and technical assistance programs to teach on and off farm water stewardship practices for this season and for future generations.
Don’t forget when you bite into that juicy organic peach that the juices squirting down your chin likely originated with California water. Even if you don’t live in the state of the rising sun, you taste its water every day.