Kou Her’s family has run the 12-acre Herr Family Farms in Sanger, just east of Fresno, for the last 20 years, raising a variety of vegetables for Bay Area produce and farmer’s markets. In those 20 years, Kou and his parents haven’t seen anything like the heat wave gripping the Central Valley this week.
A heat dome is baking Arizona and Nevada, where temperatures have soared past 115 degrees this week and doctors are warning that people can get third-degree burns from the sizzling asphalt.
At Lake Mead, which supplies water for 25 million people in three southwestern states and Mexico, water levels have plunged to their lowest point since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. In California, farmers are abandoning their thirstiest crops to save others, and communities are debating whether to ration tap water.
Severe drought highlights the need for greater investment to improve aging California water facilities, and increases calls for allocation of federal and state resources to tackle the problem.
A national coalition that includes the California Farm Bureau urged U.S. Senate leaders last week to take action to address the shortcomings of aging water infrastructure, and to include “a broad range of water uses” in any federal infrastructure legislation. At the same time, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators plan to invest at least $5 billion to address critical water needs.
Thousands of Central California farmers were warned Tuesday that they could face water cutoffs this summer as the state deals with a drought that already has curtailed federal and state irrigation supplies.
The State Water Resources Control Board notified about 6,600 farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed who have rights to use water from the Central Valley estuary of “impending water unavailability” that may continue until winter rains come.
In a sign of worsening drought, the state on Tuesday warned about 4,300 users to stop diverting water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta watershed, stretching from Fresno to the Oregon border.
The notifications, which indicate that demand from farmers and cities is exceeding supply, are the widest-ranging move by state regulators since 2015 to restrict the use of water rights in a major watershed.
As the Southwest prepares for what’s forecast to be another mercilessly hot and dry summer, tensions over water scarcity are rising like the mercury.
Farmers are facing bleak growing seasons and the possibility of farm failures in several areas due to cutbacks in water allocations for irrigation, creating friction between the ag community and cities on the dwindling water supply in the region. Rural communities in Nevada and elsewhere, already wary of incursions by urban areas into their water supplies, are on high alert as the water crisis deepens.
California never has enough water to meet all demands and even when supplies are relatively robust there’s a triangular competition over their allocation. Farmers, municipal users and environmental advocates vie for shares of water that has been captured by California’s extensive network of dams and reservoirs. Their battles are waged in the state Capitol, in Washington, in regulatory agencies and in the courts and over time, the trend has been a subtle shift of supplies from long-dominant agriculture to protecting flows for fish and other wildlife while maintaining the relatively small amount consumed in urban areas.
In dry years, Californians talk about the drought as if it were a war — a battle of north versus south, haves versus have-nots, fish versus farmer.
When a critical resource is scarce, we want to fight for it. But let’s not drown in the fake narrative of environmentalists against growers. It’s a false dichotomy that distracts from the real heart of California’s water woes: an outdated system that prioritizes the financial interests of a wealthy few over the health and well-being of many. This keeps us from finding honest solutions to drought conditions that the climate crisis will only intensify.
But the outlook is poor at this time, given deepening drought, abundant dry fuels and hot early-season temperatures.
Normally, the biggest vegetable grower in Sonoma County, Humberto Castañeda Produce, grows heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, watermelons and other crops on 180 acres outside of Santa Rosa. But this year, Humberto Castañeda and his son, Gabriel, are farming only 17 acres after receiving a fraction of their normal allotment of water from the city of Santa Rosa.
“I could plant the whole farm and have water that might last me for a month,” said Gabriel, 27, who is managing the farm Humberto founded in the 1980s for the first time this season. “After that the plants are going to die.”