California Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a drought emergency in most counties across the state while experts predict the current drought will end up being worse than the one we experienced between 2011-2017. That historic event was caused by nonstop hot and dry weather aggravated by climate change.
Increasing temperatures and fluctuating atmospheric patterns reduce rainfall and devastate farms across the Golden State especially because most farmers can’t rely on state or federal water projects to help supplement the lack of rainfall.
This spring, things got even worse due to an epic heatwave causing snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains to dry up when it normally flows into waterways at the base of the mountains. Every year this amount of snow typically accounts for 700 acre-feet of water that the state uses.
The city of Teviston, located between Fresno and Bakersfield in Southern California, lost the only well they had to supply water for all of their 700 residents last month due to extreme heat which reached triple-digit temperatures. Since the well failure, caused by sand in the pump, the local residents have had to rely on bottles and jugs of donated water from the district plus tanker trucks bringing in water from the town of Porterville 23 miles away.
Something that can help the dire situation is the Biden Administration’s $5 billion that’s been allocated in the recent infrastructure deal to help water projects out west. Congressman John Garamendi, member of the House Water Resources and Environment subcommittee, has said that investments in climate-resilient water storage infrastructure like dams and reservoirs are needed to solve the crisis.
These water storage projects couldn’t come at a better time for farmers with the California State Water Resources Control Board recently announcing stricter water limits for thousands of farmers between the Central Valley and the Oregon Border. The new order forces 4,300 farmers to rely on wells or storage, instead of normal surface irrigation. Cutting water to farmers also cuts the food supply to everyone else.
California Farm Water Coalition found that close to 2 million acres of the state’s irrigated farmland, basically one out of every four acres, has seen its water supply slashed already by 95%. An additional million acres has lost 80% of its water supply for 2021 with the remainder of farmland across the state restricted to 25% less water.
In 2019, the California Department of Food and Agriculture calculated that farmers provide 400 commodities to the nation, including more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts. The top ten commodities included dairy products, almonds, grapes, cattle and calves, strawberries, pistachios, lettuce, walnuts, floriculture and tomatoes.
In addition to the White House infrastructure bill potentially providing billions to alleviate the West’s water crisis, other solutions are becoming available.
A Huntington Beach desalination plant is under consideration that is estimated to produce 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water every day as the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. The Orange County Water District boasts the planet’s largest water recycling project that recycles all the interior water used by the 3 million-plus residents of Orange County.
Recent California farming practices have started to include subsurface drip irrigation, with drip lines buried 6-12 inches underneath the root zone. Above ground drip along with micro-sprinklers for trees are maximizing efficiency and eliminating evaporation. Finally, new pressurized canal system pipelines retain more water with the pipes closely monitored for leaks.
But, despite great technological advances in farming, sunlight is still a major limiting factor in agriculture production. To optimize land utilization, growers often plant crops close together. This combined with natural shading interferes with sunlight interception, hence limiting photosynthesis and reducing productivity. Farmers across the state face lower yields, higher labor costs, water scarcity and changing climate.
A highly innovative agricultural technology is helping farmers in California’s Central Valley and Northern California significantly increase yield and accelerate development in a variety of high value crops including table grapes, wine grapes, citrus, almonds and pistachio. What’s really interesting, is that the improved production is coupled with higher water-use efficiency and greater carbon sequestration.
AG productivity must increase, but it must be done through sustainable methods. The effects of climate change are impacting farmers’ ability to grow the food the rest of the country relies on year after year. As water prices are rising, and 70% of the world’s fresh water is being used for farming, we need to have intelligent use of water and natural resources which are fundamental to the future of life on this planet.
Jonathan Destler is CEO of Opti-Harvest