Without plenty of fresh, clean, affordable water, our region’s farmers would no longer be able to grow the diverse and prolific bounty of produce that makes the Monterey Bay area one of the most important growing regions in the country. So, naturally, long before concerns about fracking surfaced, our farmers were quietly focused on conserving both the quantity and quality of their water. And in the last few years, they have redoubled their efforts.
“Farmers have been good stewards of the land,” says Phil Foster, whose Pinnacle Organics cultivates 250 acres in Hollister and San Juan Bautista and powers its operations with solar energy and biodiesel fuel. “They’re all keeping a close eye on their groundwater. We know it’s fragile, and we’re learning how to respond to it.”
Across the tri-county Monterey Bay region, the 3-year drought has both created new water problems for local farmers and ranchers and exacerbated long-term ones. As much as 80–90% of California’s water is estimated to go to agriculture, but it is still not enough. For years, farm wells (along with municipalities) in much of our region have drawn down underground aquifers at a faster rate than the rain has been recharging them. In recent years, farmers have even had to pump during traditionally rainy seasons, increasing costs and raising fears of aquifers drying up.
In the Pajaro and northern Salinas Valleys of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, this heavy pumping has caused salt water intrusion into aquifers that line the coast because as the water table fell, seawater entered to fill it. This is being slowed or stopped by pumping recycled water into these areas, but it hasn’t reversed the intrusion.
San Benito County is a little different. One of the driest regions of our area, it had long had access to federal Central Valley Project water that came from snowmelt in the Sierras. But for the last decade, that water has been cut back, and this year, the SBC water district received no new CVP water for its farmers, although it was able to offer them some that it had been able to store—for a price. And that, in turn, has forced farmers in the county to be dependent on their wells.
As in parts of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, this has caused the water table to drop, but instead of contaminating wells with seawater, it has caused increased concentrations of naturally occurring salts and other minerals in some well water, making it less suitable for certain crops, like lettuce, unless diluted with rainwater or recycled water. Dick Peixoto, owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, in 1996 changed his farm from conventional farming to organic, a move he says saved his century-old family business and reduced his water consumption, as organic practices are by nature conservationist.
For example, the organic farming method of improving soil quality by planting cover crops and adding other organic soil amendments and employing crop rotation naturally helps boost the soil’s ability to capture and retain precious water. And this retention also reduces harmful runoff into our watersheds, as does organic farmers’ avoidance of toxic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Limiting his water use was a priority for Peixoto long before the current crisis. “We’ve been working on cutting our water use for the past 20 years,” he explains. “We don’t furrow [flood irrigate] our lettuce, and now we grow the whole crop on one acre foot [of water].
That’s 40,000 pounds of lettuce that we used to need 3–4 acre feet to produce.” Peixoto also makes ample use of cover crops and other organic matter to build his soil’s holding capacity, and while he still uses sprinklers on certain crops (broccoli and cauliflower are examples of produce that need it), he’s switched to more water-conserving drip irrigation for many others.
Other technology that Peixoto and other farmers are embracing to help save water is the Wireless Irrigation Network, a monitoring device that allows farmers to collect soil moisture retention data remotely to help them make smarter decisions about when and how much to water—and avoid water waste. According to Lisa Lurie, program specialist at the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, this device can save 20% of water usage.
In some way or another, all of these accommodations to the drought come at a price.
Farmers in the Pajaro and San Juan Valleys, for example, must pay a fee for water they draw from their own wells to make up for lack of rain, and those who don’t have enough well water of their own will pay more.
And as Monterey County farmer Jamie Collins of Serendipity Farms explains, even if you don’t pay for your well water, you still need to pay for the cost of additional pumping.
“Cover crops needed to be irrigated this year when they usually grow only with rain water,” she says. “This costs us more money in labor moving pipes. The PG&E bill to run the electricity to the well pump is more expensive because we are using it when normally we wouldn’t have to water.”
Some farmers are cutting their losses by leaving fields fallow. But when they can, many are making changes in what they grow, cutting back on or eliminating especially thirsty crops altogether.
Pinnacle Organics’ Phil Foster, for example, has stopped growing water-loving sweet potatoes and peanuts and is cutting back on corn. Other ways that farmers are changing the way they manage their fields include leveling them to prevent runoff and collecting more rainwater, particularly to use it to dilute well water that the drought has concentrated with excess salts and other minerals.
Annette Hoff, winemaker and operations manager at Cima Collina Winery in Carmel Valley, says the winery recently put in a pond to collect rainwater and has installed drip irrigation, eschewing the flood irrigation that used to be so common in vineyards.
“We look at every plant to see what plants need more or less water and we’ve put check valves in lines to keep water where it’s supposed to be. This is especially important in hilly areas as it keeps the water from running downhill.”
Livestock owners that depend on natural forage for their animals have been hit particularly hard.
Just as organic farmers carefully tend their soil to provide for their crops, grassfed beef ranchers have to care for their ranges as much as their cattle, rotating grazing lands and protecting them from depletion. So this year, Joe Morris of Morris Grassfed Beef had to cut his herd by 60% and haul water for the cattle that remained.
“We need to make sure that we manage our land and our resources to take care of the water system for both the short term and the future,” Morris says.
But on the positive side, many of our farms, benefiting in relative terms from our region’s watersheds, are thus far in generally better shape than those in some other parts of California, particularly the nearby Central Valley, where many farmers’ situations are especially dire.
No one is certain how long our area’s aquifers will hold up under the current conditions. But farmers are very motivated to do what they can to push water conservation to its limits, and there is hope that when farmers can do no more to cut back, recycled water from regional sewage treatment plants or seawater treated by desalination plants could make up for a lack of rain or groundwater.
Meteorologists are also predicting a possible El Niño climate pattern next year, but there is no telling on which side of the storm front the area would be. So the only alternative for the farmers is flexibility, and when necessary, paying a higher cost for their water.
“It’s not about the drought,” says Jeff Larkey of Route One Farms in Santa Cruz. “It’s about climate change. The drought is just a manifestation of a much bigger problem.” —LB and SW