Persistent drought worsens water pain for California farmers

FRESNO, Calif. — On a recent day in the San Joaquin Valley, rain falling outside was cause for celebration for Aaron Fukuda.

“For us, water is a mood,” Fukuda, chairman of Tulare Irrigation District, said over the phone.

As a third consecutive dry year sets in for California, drought has become a source of stress and anxiety for farmers and communities. But the rain brings happiness. If only the rain came more often, Fukuda said.

The state’s rainy season typically ends on April 1 and for Fukada and his team, who manage the water distribution 230 Tulare County Farms, it promises to be an even more difficult year than the last.

The snowpack in the mountains melts in the spring and flows along the channels into the valley. But a snow survey conducted by the Department of Water Resources on April 1 – when snow is often at its highest – showed levels at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada had “dropped” to 38%. of the annual average since the beginning of the year.

The US Bureau of Reclamation – a federal agency under the Department of the Interior which provides irrigation water to 17 Western US states – recently announced it would provide less water to agricultural groups and cities, also known as contractors, who benefit from the federal supply, which partly flows through the San Joaquin Valley through a 400-mile stretch of canal known as the Central Valley Project.

A section of the Friant-Kern Canal runs through eastern Tulare County, California. The canal is part of the federal Central Valley project, which distributes water to farms and towns. As drought continues to plague California, water deliveries have been reduced this year. Photo by Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado/PBS NewsHour

The office said that among the 250 contractors in the area, those with the most critical water obligations will only receive a 15% water allocation due to worsening effects of the drought, including low reservoir storage. Under these conditions, regulators could decide to reduce water deliverieswhile farmers turn on their pumps in search of groundwater.

California is no stranger to this cycle. The state has struggled with water reliability for about a decade, and scientists and state officials have long worried about the chronic under-drawing of the groundwater supply, as over-pumping during drought causes water levels to drop and wells to dry up at a faster rate.

But this year is shaping up to promise an even bigger showdown between the agricultural industry, which uses up to 80% of the state’s water, and regulators when spring and summer arrive.

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Late last month, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order calling on the State Water Resources Control Board to develop policies prohibiting the watering of ‘non-functional’ grass next to large industrial buildings. or commercial, but not including grassy areas used for recreation. The governor also called on local water agencies to develop “aggressive water conservation measures.” Earlier in March, the Newsom administration said he was investing $22.5 million for the current drought emergency.

Vvoluntary limits set up by the state last year to encourage water conservation and limiting water use so far have not been successful. California officials also found that local agencies responsible for groundwater regulation had failed to provide adequate plans to reduce groundwater use in future years.

Fukuda told the NewsHour that while farmers in his county have to turn to groundwater due to low delivery volumes, there are plans in his irrigation district to reduce the amount that can be pumped from May.

Drought-related effects increase

Drought will hit disadvantaged communities hard again this year, said Josue Medellin-Azuara, a professor at the University of California, Merced, lead researcher of a report released in February outlining the impacts in areas like the Central Valley. last year.

Medellin-Azuara and others found that about 385,000 acres of unused farmland in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, largely due to the effects of drought. They also estimated that the state’s agriculture industry and related sectors lost $1.7 billion in revenue, along with 14,634 full-time and part-time jobs in 2021.


Heavy equipment is used to remove trees from the farm in Tulare County, California as drought continues to hit the state. Photo by Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado/PBS NewsHour

Medellin-Azuara said a key feature of the drought in the West was that the weather was getting warmer in addition to drying out, making crops and soil more thirsty.

“Conditions are actually getting worse,” he told the NewsHour. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be getting more rain anytime soon, and the snowpack is already below average. the [water] allocations are quite low and we have the antecedent conditions that have [left] a fairly dry soil, a fairly thirsty atmosphere and require more water to irrigate the crops. All of these factors combined will have a cumulative effect on the impacts of the drought this year. »

Medellin-Azuara said it is expected that more agricultural land will become unused. The western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, where crops such as tomatoes, garlic, onions, almonds and grapes are grown, is experiencing the greatest and fastest impact of the drought in the region in due to its greater dependence on water supply as groundwater becomes scarce.

Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen said changes in weather patterns are an issue that have led to water problems in the Valley, but he said water export decisions are taken over a decade ago to protect endangered fish species in the Sacramento-San Joaquín Delta. He said this has led farmers to become increasingly uncertain about the availability of water.

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“Due to decisions at the time [delta] the pumps should be running and when they shouldn’t we’ve lost the ability to capture some of those high flows,” Jacobsen said. “And, you know, we saw a very dry January followed by a very dry February, which made for a very bleak forecast for water allocations for a year like this.”

Jacobsen said there are fewer farmers today than in previous years, mainly due to the unreliable nature of water over time, in addition to the high costs and regulations farmers face. . In some cases, larger farms absorb smaller ones to maximize water costs and availability, Jacobsen said.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of farms of all sizes in Fresno County decreased by 21% between 2007 and 2017.

“These multiple years of zero percent allowances are taking their toll, and how do you get the loans and the financing and the care to plan for these kinds of crops without having the ability to know for sure that you’re even going to have water for two, three, five consecutive years? Jacbonsen said.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, calls on water agencies across the state to develop sustainability plans by 2040, in part to limit groundwater pumping.


Water irrigates young almond trees in Tulare County, California. The state’s drought is impacting the amount of water that can be provided to farmers in the region. Photo by Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado/PBS NewsHour

According to the policy being developed by the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency, which oversees the Tulare Irrigation District, farmers will be required to use technology that can measure the exact amount of water their crops need. , to avoid exceeding water consumption, Fukuda said.

“We know things are bad right now,” Fukuda said. But with their communities and livelihoods so dependent on agriculture, they need to establish good policies to keep it all going. “We have already made decisions on plantings and other things for this season. But we are going to have to start reducing,” he added.

Increased focus on “water recharge”

Farmers and cities have used so-called “recharge” practices to limit the effects of drought, in which excess water from wet years is returned to the soil either through irrigation or large open basins which capture the flow of the channels.

Fresno, a city of half a million people, is currently expanding its groundwater recharge work, according to Fresno Irrigation District Chairman Bill Stretch. Four years ago, the city approved a $400 million project to increase its groundwater recharge capacity by constructing more ponds to collect excess water from sources such as the Kings River to the east of the city.

Stretch said the Fresno Irrigation District delivers hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water for urban and agricultural use, including the Fresno-Clovis metropolitan area, and is in good condition to withstand drought due to recharge works. He calls groundwater the district’s “safety valve.”

Stretch does not expect any immediate major disruptions to water supplies for its customers. However, he said, water levels could drop as the dry period approaches, in some places by 15 feet – less than in other parts of the valley.

“I’m not saying the wells won’t dry up or people won’t have to work on their wells because they will this summer, just like they did last summer,” Stretch said. .

He added that dry conditions still mean farms in the district can only irrigate for at least two months, instead of the usual five months of the year. This remains a question as the heat will soon begin to melt the snow that will come down the Kings River and determine exactly how much water will come into the district.

But as the region prepares for the dry months ahead, Stretch clings to a greater hope: that enough rain will return to end the drought. If so, there may be up to 900 acres of recharge ponds spread openly across the district – each tasked with capturing every inch of water flowing through them.

“When those wet years come, whatever it looks like, we’ll be ready,” he said.


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