Conservation ethic allows Monterey Bay farmers to thrive during drought – Monterey Herald


Despite October’s record-setting rains, Central Valley farmers are still reeling from having their water supplies drastically reduced when the drought intensified last spring. Many farmers have been forced to rip out crops that can no longer be irrigated. Some have doubled or tripled their groundwater pumping as wells dry up before their eyes.

In the Monterey Bay area, however, crops reach toward the sun with thirst-quenched leaves. Well levels aren’t raising any alarms and the threat of losing water supplies has mostly subsided.

“I don’t know anybody having water issues right now,” said Joe Schirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Produce, a 40-acre organic farm in Watsonville.

Motivated by a need to keep seawater from seeping into the region’s aquifers, Monterey Bay water agencies and both small farms and large corporate farms have been aggressively protecting water basins from saltwater intrusion for a quarter of a century. Expensive water-recycling projects have allowed farmers to reduce their reliance on groundwater, as conservation-minded growing practices and cutting-edge irrigation techniques cut water waste.

“We know how important (water) is and that’s why we were so proactive to get ahead and manage the resource,” said Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens, a family-owned Pajaro Valley farm that grows a wide palate of organic vegetables.

During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the threat of saltwater intrusion loomed over Central Coast farmers like a persistent shadow. They knew that if they allowed aquifer levels to dip below sea level, ocean water would continue to creep into their wells and eventually destroy them.

Horror stories began emerging in the ’90s. One grower, Castroville’s Ocean Mist Farms, saw its artichokes and strawberry fields wilt when seawater invaded wells. But extensive improvements to the local wastewater treatment plant made highly treated effluent safe to use on crops. The saltwater intrusion slowed, and the crops recovered.

Sean Pezzini, a fourth-generation artichoke farmer at Pezzini Farms in Castroville, said growers in north Monterey County remain vigilant about the saltwater invasion. But, he said, artichoke farmers have little to complain about these days when it comes to water.

Despite the drought, last spring’s artichoke crop was  “fantastic, and the plants are looking pretty healthy for this fall,” Pezzini said.

Since the groundbreaking use of reclaimed water on crops in the northern stretch of the Salinas Valley two decades ago, the movement to raise the water levels of aquifers has spread throughout the county.

Two years ago, a $124 million state-of-the-art water treatment facility just north of Marina began sending potable water through an 8-mile-long pipeline that’s now being injected into Seaside wells. (Courtesy of Monterey One Water)

Two years ago, a $124 million state-of-the-art water treatment facility just north of Marina began sending potable water through an 8-mile-long pipeline that’s now being injected into Seaside wells. And last year Monterey Peninsula customers began drinking recycled water out of their taps after it was mixed with existing groundwater.

Water management experts point out that Central Valley farmers are highly dependent on massive federal and state water projects, while Monterey County farmers have to make do with what nature provides them. But the lack of an outside water source has fostered innovation and a deep commitment to conservation among Central Coast farmers.

“For more than 20 years, they have been early adopters of drip irrigation, soil moisture sensors and other data-driven approaches for agricultural water management to try to minimize soil evaporation and other uses of water that don’t directly benefit the crop,” said Forrest Melton, a senior research scientist at NASA Ames who is also executive director of the Agricultural Center for Education and Research at CSU Monterey Bay.

“One thing many people aren’t aware of is that we have no imports of water here. Our supply is here on the coast,” said Michael Cahn, an irrigation and water resource adviser at the Monterey County office of the University of California Cooperative Extension. “So it takes careful management so that we don’t overpump” and allow more seawater to invade Salinas Valley wells.

Central Coast farmers don’t routinely flood crops several times each season, a common practice in the Central Valley. Instead, most local farms now use drip irrigation. The technique delivers a drink directly to plants through a drip line, placed at or right above a root system.

Peixoto estimates that the amount of water used to flood a single crop just once can nourish a drip-irrigated crop from seeds to harvest.

A handful of local farmers barely irrigate at all. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s possible to grow crops like tomatoes and winter squash on some coastal farms thanks to the high moisture content in the air and soil. Called “dry farming,” the technique requires only one or two initial waterings to help plants get established before the water supply is cut off.

Dry farmers say that a heavy dose of mulch helps to retain enough soil moisture to sustain crops through the growing season. The technique not only saves fields worth of water but can also improve the taste of crops.

Dirty Girl’s Schirmer says if you sink your teeth into a dry-farmed tomato, you’ll find it to be sweeter and a lot more flavorful. Ten of Dirty Girl’s 40 acres are set aside for dry-farmed tomatoes, and he hasn’t watered them since June.

Many Monterey Bay farmers now routinely rotate their crops and give plots some time off between plantings to prolong the health of soil.

“We maintain a high level of organic matter in our soil because it holds more moisture,” said Tom Broz, owner of Live Earth Farm in Corralitos. “There’s less need for irrigation. It’s like a sponge.”

Brendt Haddad, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz who is an expert in water management, says one big reason that both small and corporate farms on the Central Coast have enthusiastically embraced water conservation and recycling is simple economics.

“If the farmers were seeing their wells turning into saltwater, then banks would assume that those farms are going to go bankrupt” and not lend them money, Haddad said. “So sustainable water contributes to the long-run financial viability of the farms.”

By using plants that fit the climate, Haddad and other water management experts say, Central Coast farms have helped them avoid the ruthless consequences of extreme drought.

Although the Monterey Bay area’s climate allows for growing pretty much everything under the sun, farmers here are initiating conservation from the ground up by growing drought-tolerant varietals.

Unlike in the Central Valley, almond orchards that require heavy watering aren’t popping up in the Monterey Bay area. Instead, many farmers focus on crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower with relatively low water needs.

Broz, who sits on the board of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, typically leaves some areas of his 60-acre farm fallow because they aren’t productive enough to justify irrigating. And he says he prefers to sow cover crops — plants like buckwheat or clover that are left to cover soil instead of being harvested — to support his farm’s ecosystem. Similarly, farmers often take acreage out of commission during drier months to focus their watering efforts on plots that are better suited to the weather.

Despite the sustained efforts of local farmers and water managers, keeping the level of water basins at a healthy level remains a daunting task.

Few of the region’s wells have gone dry in recent years. But as the effects of climate change continue to grow, the uncertainties associated with farming grow as well. Extreme heat, reduced rainfall and wildfires all promise to become permanent features across the Golden State.

Most local farmers, however, seem optimistic. They say they’d like to reverse —- and not just stop — the overdrafting of aquifers. And water management experts say the farmers of the Central Coast are well-suited to persevere through constant innovation.

Broz says as farmers adapt, they need to support each other and not allow a divide to form.

“Farmers are almost like an endangered species,” Broz said. “It’s important that we don’t pit one type of farmer against another. We need to look at the system as a whole and work together toward something we can aim for.”



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