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Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau

California’s water battle puts agriculture on the front line

Most anyone reading this will be very familiar with Ohio’s water woes — there is too is much then too little, too many nutrients in lakes and streams, and toxic algae results. While the challenges with water in Ohio are significant, they are not unique and represent only a small fraction of the daunting water challenges being dealt with around the country. The issues of water quality and supply are monumental and will not be going away any time soon. Water could very well be the defining challenge in the current era of agriculture.

With this in mind, a series of stories over the next few months will be taking a look at the some of the nation’s water issues. What better place to start than California?

When the 2016 water year began on Oct. 1, water storage in California’s federal Central Valley Project was at 47% of the 15-year average, about 200,000 acre-feet less than last year at the same time. With California in the midst of one of its worst droughts in history, the vital agricultural industry in the state is paying a heavy price to maintain production and conserve valuable water.

“It is all interrelated with different nuances in every part of the country. Water supply for us right now is the major issue,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau. “In California we are unique because we have always been able to store water. We have the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Sierra Nevada on the other and that allows us to have mountain reservoirs for snow capture and runoff. Typically, 70% of our water comes from snowmelt that fills our reservoirs and underground aquifers. We are one of of a few Mediterranean regions in the world and we have an arid climate, but we can apply water when we need it and we have the warm temperatures to grow the myriad of crops we do.”

The system has worked well for years to allow for incredible agricultural production, but the major drought has put tremendous strain on the state’s water resources required to support agriculture and the state’s large population.

“We have not really grown our water infrastructure in 40 years while our population has grown from 20 million to almost 40 million,” Wenger said.

Wenger produces almonds and walnuts on his central California farm and has seen dramatic water use reduction for his crops.

“We are seeing a 60% reduction in the water allotment of surface water from what we had last year. We own a reservoir in the Modesto Irrigation District in combination with the Turlock, which is the town just south of us. We’ve always had ample amounts of water available but now with drought and the environmental restrictions, we are being reduced on the water we can use out of the reservoir,” he said. “This year we were allotted 16 inches of water to apply to our fields. For our almonds and walnuts in a normal year we require 30 and 36 inches of applied water. If we are going to irrigate a corn crop or alfalfa we would also use around 30 or 36 inches depending on the soil type. As you go further down the valley, that water demand goes up because of the heat. It could be 50% higher for the amount of water needed.”

In response to the necessary water use reductions, Wenger and other farmers are employing new water management practices.

“The water issues result in more expense and more management. Growers have gotten into micro-irrigation. They are using drip lines and spoon-feeding the amount of water that goes onto the plants. We are seeing things like strawberries grown on subterranean drip lines,” Wenger said. “But what we are seeing is that we are not recharging the underground aquifers. Before when we used less efficient irrigation techniques, our plants would grab 30, 40 or 50% of the water applied and the water that wasn’t used by the plants helped fill the underground aquifer.”

As the surface water supply grows increasingly scarce, more supply is required from the groundwater supplies, which brings a new set of challenges.

“Now that we are not filling those underground aquifers, we are seeing a concentration of nitrates in the groundwater. A lot of the N is legacy N from agriculture and from domestic sewer treatment plants. For our part, we are working steadfastly to address our contributions from agriculture, but it will take some years to do that,” he said. “We have virtually quit applying nitrogen on our ground. When we use surface water we may need to apply some N, but if we are using groundwater we are using those nitrates and we have really reduced N use. We are learning. As we condense things in the water and reuse it and reuse it and don’t capture some natural rainfall and snowmelt, we are going to have more challenges with water quality.”

There is reason for some optimism, though, as a strong El Niño is settling in which could mean a very wet winter for California.

“The last El Niño year we had was 1998. They are calling this a Godzilla El Niño. A concern is that is could provide very hard rains but not provide snow or it could provide flash flood potential that is just running off. We could get heavy rains and still be in a drought,” Wenger said.  “We need to adapt to the realities of the weather. The last few years the snow has been very minimal and 70% of our water supply comes from our snow pack. If we see less snow and more rain in the future, we need to rethink our water infrastructure so we can capture those rains for future use and prevent devastating flooding downstream.”

There are efforts underway to facilitate this.

“Urban areas are talking about cisterns and other things. Those efforts to capture storm water can help, but the problem is that you have to slow that water down so it can percolate into the ground and be dealt with later. There are some smaller projects but they are moving slowly and we need some bigger picture strategies as well. There are larger efforts looking at off-stream storage for water in reservoirs too,” Wenger said. “But there is a component of the environmental community that doesn’t want any new water infrastructure because they don’t want California to grow. There is a theory out there that if we don’t do anything about our water that people will just move to Ohio. They think if they say ‘no’ that eventually people just won’t want to live in California any more.”

Such theories contribute to the complexities of California politics that drive many of the water resource management decisions in the state.

“In the regulatory environment we have, there are well meaning legislators that make a decision today and expect results tomorrow. Things don’t work that way. We are working in a natural environment and the weather is unpredictable. What works in a dry year may not work in a wet year. We need to make plans and give them time to take action. Just last year a plan was put into action with groundwater and already this year the governor has said we have to move quicker on groundwater,” Wenger said. “You can’t stop a locomotive by just saying stop when it is going down the track. You have to slow it down first. We are trying to educate regulators and political leaders that we need to make plans and put them into action realizing things are not going to change in six months. We are hoping to see changes over a decade. When I plant a walnut tree it takes five years until I produce a crop. Folks in agriculture have a long-term view of things and make long-term commitments. We realize that our investments of today may not pay off for many years down the road. I fully anticipate in the next 10 to 20 years that we can correct this problem. The bigger issue is whether government will allow us to do this. Every step of the way they are putting up roadblocks for research and technology. They say they want you to improve the situation, but rather than allow companies to expedite their research and get approvals, they really drag their feet. “

 

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