The world-famous Californian sprawling beaches, skyscrapers and bridges are rare sights in the San Joaquin Valley. Here, extensive farmlands and oil fields indicate the way in which the region contributes significantly to the state’s $2.7 billion economy.
However, a six-year California Central Valley drought has left the region with quadrupling water challenges. This Central California water crisis now makes it more important than ever to embrace sustainable agriculture.
The Importance of the Central Valley to California’s Agriculture
Central Valley is known as “the food basket of the world” thanks to its rich agricultural soils. Most of America’s nuts, wine grapes, dairy, cotton, and other farm products originate here. The region is now grappling with a major transition in order to balance its rapidly shrinking groundwater reserves.
What caused the Central California water crisis and how can you adapt?
The Origin of the Central California Water Crisis
In the Central Valley, a world-famous network of aqueducts, reservoirs, canals, pipelines, and channels shunt water up and down the agricultural region. This enables growers to grow most of the thirsty crops produced in the farmlands. However, surface water has grown increasingly scarce due to the Central California water crisis — leading to the over-exploitation of other natural sources, including underground aquifers.
As a grower in this region, you would remember the historic 2011-2016 drought. You may not be the only grower who had to drill a well to nurture your farm. In what seemed like a groundwater arms race, growers competed to reach thousand-year aquifers. Most folks have had to drill thousands of feet deep in recent years in order to keep their farms productive.
Aquifers and the Overdraft Phenomenon
Due to the Central California water crisis, aquifers are not being replenished as fast as they are pumped. When that happens, it is called an overdraft. Currently, water overdraft accounts for about 15% of the total water used in the region. This represents a historic imbalance rate of 1.8 million-acre feet per year and means that the region’s aquifers lose about 587 billion gallons of water every planting season.
One of the immediate problems associated with the excess overdraft is the sinking of the land. Some areas have sunk more than two inches during the Central California water crisis, causing visible cracks and holes. Sinking land also damages aqueducts and water pipelines, complicating the process of moving water from one place to another. This, in turn, increases production costs. The depletion of groundwater may also prompt you to drill deeper and more expensive wells.
Other Complications Arising from Aquifer Overdrafts
Overdrafts have brought with them a host of other farming and social problems beyond the sinking of land. Some of the most prevalent issues include:
- Minimal Farming Water
Low water supply due to the California Central Valley drought and destroyed surface channels poses a huge risk to farming. While combating the Central California water crisis, you still need a regular supply of water to be able to keep growing crops in the region. Farming accounts for 87% of the water used in the valley region and you and other growers collectively use about 16.8 million acre-feet of water. Reduced supply could significantly hurt your farm and the region’s overall productivity.
- Water Poisoning
A new report indicates that the over-pumping of aquifers during the Central California water crisis increases the risk of arsenic being released into the water. This dangerous chemical can significantly increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease if it is present in high enough levels. The report showed increasingly dangerous arsenic levels in 10% of the wells tested in the valley region.
- Lack of Drinking Water for Rural Communities
In 2016 alone, California budgeted $19 million for the provision of emergency drinking water to communities disadvantaged by the California Central Valley drought. The main trigger for this move was the increased concentration of poisonous materials in tap water. Roughly 100,000 people in rural central valley lack access to clean and safe drinking water. They have, as such, been forced to spend up to 10% of their income on toxin-free water.
- Arsenic is Not the Only Worry
In addition to groundwater toxins like arsenic, dairy farming is one of the largest contributors to the increased poisoning of tap water in the region. This occurs because farmers use their nutrient-rich manure lagoons as fertilizer sources. After some time, the excess nitrates leach into the water table and often into drinking water wells as well.
- Environmental Degradation
The long-term effects of overdrafts created during the Central California water crisis include irreversible changes to land and soil profiles. The sinking of land is a leading cause of degradation on agriculturally productive land. The sinking regions are also left with damaged infrastructure.
Water Regulation Laws
The national and state governments have proposed several regulations to curtail aquifer over-exploitation during the Central California water crisis. One of the most popular of these bills is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). This act is expected to be active from 2020 to 2040 and its aim is to return groundwater use to sustainable levels.
The SGMA and the New Groundwater Sustainability Agencies
In response to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act bill, more than 120 local “groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs)” have been formed to manage their local basin portions and prevent the depletion of existing aquifers. When the SGMA’s implementation begins, people might be forced to leave some of their farmlands idle.
Whatever the regulations proposed by your local GSA for adapting to the Central California water crisis, the local residents will be forced to comply with them. This may have different effects on large and small-scale farms and those with greater or more limited resources. When you think about the diversity of farm sizes currently present in the valley, compliance with this law could cause a significant shift in the region’s agricultural diversity.
The Takeaway on the SGMA
One thing that Central Valley growers can count on is that the law is likely to drive up pumping capital and operational costs. This increase includes expenses associated with installing or updating infrastructure, paying compliance fees, and investing in monitoring and training.
Possible Solutions to the Central California Water Crisis
The California Public Policy Institute recently released a report advocating for better water management strategies in response to the California Central Valley drought. The report details how you can adapt better methods of water management as a small or large-scale grower.
Some of the proposed long-term solutions include:
- Manage Groundwater Resources
You should rely on your local GSA to learn better methods of exploiting groundwater resources during the Central California water crisis. They will have the technology to explore the amount of water available and that withdrawn. They will also advise on recharge and withdrawal reduction methods.
- Expand Usable Supplies
You can embrace better methods of capturing and storing local runoff. This can help to reduce your reliance on groundwater as you also reuse water within your farm. Larger infrastructure investments could help to improve the conveyance of water from the San Joaquin River delta.
- Reduce Demand
You can implement this recommendation easily by idling some of your farmland. This is more important for areas where it is impossible to renew the groundwater supply with new supplies. Less cultivation could lower your farm’s water needs when you cannot get surface water due to the Central California water crisis.
- Idling Part of Your Farmland May Become Unavoidable
Ultimately, idling some of your farmland may become inevitable during the California Central Valley drought as state agencies propose to cut pumping by 2.5 million acre-feet per year. Such a shortage would drive up the price of water. You may have to pay more to import water from other regions. An alternative and more economical idea would be to simply leave some lands fallow.
Rotational fallowing for reduced water use is an especially great strategy when coupled with the cultivation of a cover crop during the following period. The long-term benefits of cover crops include improved soil health and better moisture retention and filtration capacities.
- Explore Multi-Benefit Options
During the Central California water crisis and beyond, scientists advocate managing groundwater in ways that allow you to preserve both its quality and quantity. You could, for instance, tailor your irrigation methods and crop choices to achieve a cleaner recharge.
- Water Trading
This is one of the strategies that most growers used in the recent California Central Valley drought and is most relevant for those who need higher water inputs for the growth of high-value, water-intensive crops like grapes and almonds. As an example of water trading in practice, growers from the drier Kern basin could buy water rights from growers in the wetter, northern districts.
- More Crop per Drop
This strategy requires you to reduce the amount of water it takes to grow a particular crop. The Almond Board has been able to do this for almonds — one of the water-intensive, high-value crops — in response to the Central California water crisis. Officials from the board say that they have gotten “more crop per drop” in the last 20 years, reducing the amount of water that it takes to produce a pound of almonds by 33%!
The Central California water crisis Has Highlighted the Need for Better Irrigation Techniques
To stay in the farming business, you will need water, despite the growing challenges to source it amid the Central California water crisis. As a Central Valley grower, you should be thinking of how to increase yields with less water. This requires you to understand how your irrigation system operates.
All over California, growers apply irrigation water using various methods. Two of the most prevalent of these methods are surface and pressure. Surface irrigation — through furrow, flood, and basin systems — might be one of the methods you use. Unfortunately, neither surface nor pressure irrigation systems are likely to be very efficient. They can cause uneven water distribution and drive up water pumping and supply costs.
Increasing the Efficiency of Your Irrigation System to Survive the California Central Valley Drought
Your irrigation system should be so efficient that not one drop of precious water is wasted. You also need to monitor minor challenges before they quadruple and cost you a fortune. As such, thinking carefully about the design of your irrigation system and associated services is essential for your farm’s short- and long-term profitability. You have to be proactive about implementing effective irrigation scheduling and maintenance strategies now.
Contact Fruit Growers Supply for Efficient Irrigation Solutions
At Fruit Growers Supply, we have a team of skilled professionals who are ready to offer comprehensive irrigation support to help you adapt to the California Central Valley drought. At FGS, you can access the following smart and efficient irrigation-related services:
- Free water analysis
- Monthly monitoring of drum treatment levels
- Monthly visual inspection of filtration systems for leaks and missing or broken items
- Monthly system flow and pressure checks (when applicable)
- Post-harvest or custom sand level checks in tanks
- Comprehensive service reports
Do you need customized irrigation support to help you adapt to the Central California water crisis? Contact us today to find out how to start using water sustainably and increase profitability at your farm.