For most of the state, the drought is over. The Central Valley is receiving their full state water supply allocation and farmers don’t need to pull water from the ground to keep their crops from dying of thirst. But that doesn’t mean the signs along Interstate 5 and Highway 99 grumbling about the “Politicians Created Water Crisis” and the Valley’s man-made dust bowl, and asking if “Growing Food Is Wasting Water?” should be taken down.
California farmers are putting a big target on Glen Canyon Dam, telling the federal government it’s time to take a serious look at suggestions to stop using the dam to produce electricity. Talk of decommissioning the dam has been on the fringe of criticism of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation management of the Colorado River, but it could gain momentum as public comment is released in the coming days.
Under the broiling hot sun of California’s Imperial Valley, a canal cuts the land in two. On one side, gravelly beige sand is dotted with scrub and shimmering waves of heat blur the mountains in the distance. On the other, sprawling fields of crops blanket the valley floor in a mat of bright green squares.
In 1991, during a lengthy drought, the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California ordered huge cuts in supplies to the San Diego County Water Authority, which relied on MWD for 95 percent of its water. The authority resolved back then to steadily and sharply diversify its supplies, and it did with great success.
During Mark McBroom’s 40 years of farming in the Imperial Valley, he’s had to adapt to changing climate conditions and water availability. After California, Arizona and Nevada came to an agreement in May to reduce their Colorado River water usage, McBroom may soon have to adapt again. Imperial County is the driest in California, only getting 2 to 3 inches of rainfall every year. So, farmers in the region get the vast majority of their water from the Colorado River.
The law of the River– the Colorado River, that is – says the farmers come first. That’s how they see it in California, in the Imperial Valley, where farming is big business.
California farmers are encouraged by the series of atmospheric river storms that brought near-record rain and snow, filling depleted reservoirs and bolstering the snowpack.
Frost Pauli, vineyard manager for Pauli Ranch in Potter Valley in Mendocino County, said he feels optimistic after three intense years of drought. He said the winter storms “have been excellent for our water supply.”
With climate change and drought, the state of California is incentivizing not using farmland or fallowing it. The move comes as irrigation in some areas is damaging residential wells. Katie Staack farms 3,500 acres of almonds in Stanislaus County. She is one of the hundreds interested in the newly created LandFlex program. “The program is really unique because it’s focused on wet water, making sure we have wet water for our communities and aquifers, our ecosystems and farms,” Aubrey Bettencourt said.
After absorbing sunshine all summer, mature rice plants in California’s Sacramento Valley stand as high as three feet tall, in five inches of flood water. Planted in spring, farmers drain their fields in August, and they drive big, loud harvesters into them in September, gently separating the rice stalks from the grain, and blowing the harvest into bankout wagons that they tow beside them.
Already grappling with drought, lower commodity prices and higher production costs, more farmers are feeling the added pinch of groundwater regulations as local agencies implement plans that include pumping limits and new fees to balance long-term groundwater resources as required by the state.