- sms on From the Growing California video series – Drought Landscaping
- Bernadette on Glimpses of California’s water future – from the Los Angeles Times
- Steve Koehler on Rent-a-chicken comes to California – From CBS-13, Sacramento
- sms on Tanzania’s newest celebrities: female farmers – from takepart
- Charles Rathbone on Uber moves forward with Temporary Use Permit approved by CDFA
- September 2015
- August 2015
- July 2015
- June 2015
- May 2015
- April 2015
- March 2015
- February 2015
- January 2015
- December 2014
- November 2014
- October 2014
- September 2014
- August 2014
- July 2014
- June 2014
- May 2014
- April 2014
- March 2014
- February 2014
- January 2014
- December 2013
- November 2013
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- AG Vision
- Agricultural Education
- Agricultural Marketing
- Alternative Fuels
- Animal health
- Animal Welfare
- Asian Citrus Psyllid
- Border stations
- Cannella Panel
- Climate Change
- Community-based Food System
- Farm Bill
- Farm Labor
- Farmers' Markets
- Food Access
- Food Safety
- Glassy-winged Sharpshooter
- Growing California
- Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
- Invasive Species
- Light Brown Apple Moth
- Livestock ID
- Measurement Standards
- Pierce's Disease
- Specialty Crops
- State Board of Food and Agriculture
- Succession Planning
By Barry Eberling
A $59 million, six-year battle has all but eliminated a grape-maiming invasive pest that struck the heart of Napa’s wine country.
Napa County has spent $9.8 million and the wine industry $49 million fighting the European grapevine moth, the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office reported. Money went to such things as detection, trapping, insecticides and quarantine compliance.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $46.5 million fighting the moth in California. That makes for at least a $105 million statewide effort. By comparison, the Highway 12 widening in Jameson Canyon cost about $130 million.
The result: no moths have been found in Napa County since 2013.
“Hopefully about this time next year, we’ll be able to work with our state and federal partners and be able to declare eradication,” county Agricultural Commissioner Greg Clark told the Napa County Board of Supervisors.
Eradication means the federal- and state-imposed quarantine for the moth would be gone. Napa County would officially be moth-free.
But Clark doesn’t want people to become complacent. He’s not declaring victory. Signs remain posted along county roads with a photo of the European grapevine moth and the words, “Keep it on the run. Don’t let up.”
“If it’s present and we don’t know it, people might have a false sense of security,” Clark said.
European grapevine moth, AKA lobesia botrana, is a tan-brown-and-black moth about a quarter-inch long that’s native to southern Italy. Larvae feed on the inside of grapes in successive generations, hollowing them out and leaving excrement. That’s hardly a fitting image for the world-famous Napa Valley.
The moth made its first known United States appearance in 2009 amid the heart of the Napa Valley. Video shows moths swarming an Oakville vineyard in such numbers that it appears a person could wave a hand and hit a dozen.
That 11-acre block of chardonnay ended up a European grapevine moth disaster zone. Clark estimated the damage in lost crop at $150,000.
Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners recalled receiving an urgent call from then-Agricultural Commissioner Dave Whitmer after the first moth find had been made. He recalled Whitmer as saying the county had a really big deal on its hands that would take a broad effort to tackle.
“I remember looking at the problem that day and saying, ‘This is insurmountable,’ ” Stults told supervisors.
Bruce Phillips is managing partner at Phillips Family Farming, which grows grapes at Vine Hill Ranch west of Oakville on the slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains. He is among the hundreds of growers who faced the moth threat.
“It represented a huge risk to the industry,” Phillips said. “We’re very fortunate to have an agricultural commissioner and a level of focus that enabled us to mobilize against that threat.”
Napa County and the state and federal governments devised a battle plan.
In March 2010, the state Department of Food and Agriculture announced the creation of a 162-square-mile quarantine area mostly in Napa County to stop the insect’s spread. Grape growers and vintners would do such things as tarp truck beds transporting grapes to keep fruit from falling on the road. They would clean equipment leaving their property.
Grape growers within the ground zero used such tools as insecticides and a synthetic pheromone that keeps male moths from locating females, thus disrupting the insects’ mating.
Vine Hill Ranch remained out of the moth “hot zone,” Phillips said. Still, even though the moth didn’t migrate there, the ranch put out dispensers with the mating-disrupting pheromone.
The acres of vineyards treated for the moth fell from 22,000 in 2010 to 1,900 this year. In August 2014, the state removed 18 square miles from the quarantine area, including the Carneros area. Now the question is when the bulk of Napa Valley will be free of the quarantine.
Napa County remains under a European grapevine moth watch. Bright-orange, prism-shaped traps are deployed at a rate of 100 per square mile in rural areas and 25 per square mile in cities. More than 11,600 traps are deployed.
“We’re happy to see those little, orange triangles in our vineyard,” Yeoryios Apallas of Soda Creek Vineyards told supervisors.
The traps yielded:
—100,793 finds in 2010;
—113 in 2011;
—77 in 2012;
—40 in 2013;
Since then, not a single European grapevine moth has been found.
Although Napa County was the European grapevine moth epicenter, the moth turned up in other counties as well. Sonoma, Solano, Mendocino, Monterey, San Joaquin, Merced, Fresno, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Nevada counties all had moth finds.
But no moths have been found in the state this year, California Department of Food and Agriculture spokesman Steve Lyle said. One moth was detected in Cazadero, Sonoma County in 2014. All quarantines have been lifted except for portions of Napa and Sonoma counties.
A mystery remains, even as the moth appears to be on its way out.
“We never really determined how the European grapevine moth got here,” Clark said.
By John Holland
At last check, 75 percent of grape growers in California used drip or other low-volume irrigation methods. The rate was 71 percent for almonds and 63 percent for canning tomatoes.
Dairy feed crops? Not so much. The rate was just 7 percent for corn and 2.5 percent for alfalfa, based on a 2010 survey. These farmers much prefer flood irrigation, at least when the water is abundant.
That could change, based on the discussion Wednesday at a farm about 6 miles southeast of Merced. It has a test plot for corn grown with drip lines, which deliver water close to the roots, reducing losses to seepage and evaporation.
“We wanted to utilize – especially in a drought – our water most efficiently,” said John Cardoza, a project manager in the Modesto office of Sustainable Conservation. The group, based in San Francisco, helps farmers and other business people protect the environment.
Sustainable Conservation joined with Netafim USA, which makes irrigation supplies in Fresno and elsewhere, to study the potential for drip irrigation in dairy feed crops. The gathering was at De Jager Farms, which offered a few of its 17,000 acres for the project.
Flood irrigation typically takes about 40 vertical inches of water over the growing season for corn, said Nate Ray, one of the farm managers at De Jager. The drip system reduced that to 28 inches last year. The yield per acre improved, thanks to efficient application of the manure-tainted wastewater that is part of the irrigation supply at dairy farms.
“It’s probably been a 20 percent increased yield and a good foot of water that we’re saving,” Ray said. He also noted the time savings: With flood irrigation, it can take 14 or 15 hours for the water to cover a field.
Widespread use of drip systems by dairy farmers would help extend the water supply for all Californians. It also could boost the economic health of the dairy industry, which employs thousands of people in farming and processing in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Drip irrigation has one drawback, many people in farming note: It reduces the groundwater recharge provided by flood irrigation. This is the topic of an upcoming study that will include Stanislaus County almonds.
Drip systems have been widely adopted in orchards and vineyards in part because the lines can be laid once and tractors and other rigs can work around them. The same goes for microsprinklers, another low-volume technology that directs water to the roots.
The approach to drip irrigation differs in dairy feed fields, which are planted and harvested two or three times a year. The drip tape can either be buried deep enough to avoid disturbance, or it can be a disposable type that is removed after harvest. Netafim collects the waste and recycles it into new tape.
Dairy drip irrigation poses other challenges – the wastewater has to be filtered to remove most of the solids in the manure so they do not clog the tiny pores in the irrigation lines. Farmers also need to watch for gophers and other creatures that can damage a system.
Despite this, the effort shows promise, including reduced risk to groundwater quality from nitrates, a manure byproduct that can make people sick.
“We’re increasing water efficiency,” Cardoza said. “We’re increasing the efficiency and use of the nutrients that we have already on the farm. We’re reducing our costs from water use. We’re reducing our costs from using synthetic fertilizers.”
A dangerous disease, west Nile virus, has returned to California this summer. The disease has been detected in four horses – two in Riverside County, one in Tehama County, and one in Shasta County. Two of the horses have died and the other two are recovering.
Once again, we remind horse owners to have their animals vaccinated. It offers them maximum protection against the disease. And once vaccinations occur, horse owners should be checking regularly with their veterinarians to make sure they stay current.
Californians can also do their part to prevent the disease by managing mosquitoes that carry west Nile virus. Please eliminate standing water and work to limit mosquito access to horses by stabling during active mosquito feeding times such as dusk to dawn, and by utilizing fly sheets, masks or permethrin-based mosquito repellents.
It’s important to remember that mosquitoes become infected with the virus when they feed on infected birds. Horses are a dead-end host and do not spread the virus to other horses or humans. For more information on west Nile virus, please visit CDFA’s web site.
By Edward Ortiz
Sonoma farmer Andrea Davis-Cetina didn’t discover her passion for farming until she went to college.
She entered Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., intending to study photography but, during a stint on the campus farm, found herself enjoying every aspect of agriculture instead, the 32-year-old said. So she switched course and instead earned a degree in sustainable agriculture in 2005. She now runs Quarter Acre Farm, which grows organic vegetables and seedlings.
“Studying agriculture in college was extremely helpful for me in becoming a successful farmer because I was able to study how to grow a plant from a seed or make a crop plan,” Davis-Cetina said. “I was also able to take courses in ecology, anthropology and rural studies, which prepared me for the lifestyle and challenges of being a farmer.”
At one time, young farmers inherited the family’s fields or gained valuable experience working neighboring crops. Today, driven by more complicated organic farming practices and agricultural technology, they’re increasingly winning their farm smarts in classrooms or during an internship, and either leasing or buying farmland from non-family members.
Like other starting farmers, Davis-Cetina said she believes a college degree allowed her to play catch-up.
“Once I decided I wanted to farm as a career, I felt the need to study everything I could get my hands on involving farming,” she said.
Young farmers are part of a demographic that agriculture officials say are needed to replenish a rapidly graying industry. In Sacramento County, the average age of a farmer is 57 years old, just below the national average. The aging farmer population means that nearly 65 percent of farmland in the U.S. is on the cusp of some sort of transition as many farmers near retirement age, according to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census.
Roughly a quarter of farmers now earn college degrees – a rate slightly lower than those in U.S. households, where 30 percent earn college degrees, according to a 2011 USDA report.
The value of a college education for farmers is of no small concern at the Winters-based Center for Land-Based Learning, a nonprofit focused on creating the next generation of farmers.
“A degree in agriculture is extremely important – as is a college education,” said Mary Kimball, the center’s executive director. “Like with any major, one of the most critical things is learning how to learn, how to work with others, and seeing that there is a very large world out there beyond yourself.”
Getting a degree, however, also requires taking on school loan debt – a new challenge for farmers whose debt typically came from a land or equipment purchase.
A recent survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit farm advocacy organization, found that student loan debt is a barrier to would-be farmers and ranchers. The survey found that 30 percent of respondents delayed or declined getting into agriculture because of student loans. An additional 48 percent cited student loans as preventing them from growing their business or getting credit.
At UC Davis, the nation’s premier agricultural university, 81 percent of students pursuing a degree in agricultural or environmental science have taken on student loans. The average cumulative loan debt for graduating undergraduates in those two majors, for the 2013-14 school year, was $17,921.
“Young people are telling us their student loan debt is one of the most serious barriers they face when they consider a career in agriculture,” said Lindsey Lusher Shute, coalition executive director.
School loan debt has forced young farmers to make tough choices.
“After graduating, I was excited to make a career for myself in agriculture, but interning on farms is not a way to save up money to start a farm when your student loan is waiting for you,” Davis-Cetina said.
She said she still needs to work 15 hours a week at an off-farm job to pay her bills. The estimated payoff date for her loan: October 2017.
Some are coming to the field with college degrees that have nothing to do with agriculture – like urban farmer Tyler Stowers. The 29-year-old picked up the farming bug while working at farm-to-table restaurants when he was pursuing a bachelor’s in philosophy at UC Berkeley.
“My college experience has proven very helpful to me as a farmer,” Stowers said. “A farmer is required to wear many hats on a daily basis, and my years in school exposed me to world problems and potential solutions that I otherwise would have probably never experienced.”
Like Davis-Cetina, Stowers also took on college loans. The loan payments and the high price of farmland in the Sacramento region forced Stowers to take an unconventional path to farming. In lieu of a land purchase, Stowers turned 1,200 square feet of his parents’ backyard in suburban Roseville into verdant rows of lettuce, basil and other vegetables.
“In these vital beginnings of a boot-strapping startup, every dollar counts,” Stowers said. “I’ve cut my lifestyle down to bare bones so that every dollar earned is reinvested back into the farm.”
Cattle rancher Ariel Greenwood said she believes young farmers should approach the financial demands of a college degree with a healthy dose of caution.
Since graduating from North Carolina State University two years ago with a double major in psychology and agroecology, the 25-year-old has worked as a cattle herder for a small startup company called Holistic Ag. She grazes holistically managed, grass-fed cattle at a 3,200-acre research preserve in Santa Rosa.
She said she wants to deepen her grazing experience through further coursework and workshops. However, making a $300 monthly college loan payment on an income of less than $1,000 monthly won’t allow it, Greenwood said.
“Studying agroecology and related coursework definitely enhanced my understanding of every aspect of the work I’m doing,” she said. “That being said, if someone told me I’d be financially crippled right out of the gate in order to obtain that extra edge, I’d probably have reconsidered.”
URBAN AREAS IN BEST SHAPE, FARMERS ADAPTING BUT VULNERABLE
From the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Water Policy Center
SAN FRANCISCO, August 19, 2015—If the California drought continues another two to three years, the state will face increasingly acute challenges in two areas: water supply in some low-income rural communities, where wells are running dry; and ecosystems, where the state’s iconic biodiversity is under severe threat and wildfire risk is growing to new extremes. Farmers have been hit hard, but are adapting. The state’s cities and suburbs are in the best shape to withstand more years of drought, thanks to investments in diversified water supplies and improved demand-management.
These are some of the key findings of a new report released today by the PPIC Water Policy Center.
The report—which draws on wide-ranging data sources and conversations with officials, businesses, and stakeholders on the frontlines of drought management—finds that wells in some rural communities are expected to run dry at an increasing pace. As of July 2015, more than 2,000 dry wells were reported in communities that are home to some of California’s most vulnerable residents.
California’s freshwater habitats and forested lands, which have already been severely affected, will continue to face huge challenges and force difficult trade-offs. These could include the extinction of as many as 18 species of native fish, including most salmon runs; and high mortality for waterbirds that use the Pacific Flyway. Continued drought also brings a high risk of one or more severe fires that would affect local communities, watersheds, wildlife, infrastructure, and air quality.
In agriculture, roughly 550,000 acres will be fallowed for each year the drought continues, according to a new report by UC Davis for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The study estimates the annual cost of water shortages to the state’s economy at more than $2.8 billion and more than 21,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal jobs. Extra groundwater pumping will continue to be a key tool to reduce agricultural economic losses over the short term. There are still abundant groundwater reserves in many places, and high commodity prices make this extra pumping affordable—but it will contribute to dry wells and sinking lands in some areas.
Cities will need to continue to diversify their water sources and manage demand if the drought continues, but are likely to avoid extreme scarcity. The state’s economy, which grew faster than the US economy as a whole during the drought thus far, will continue to show only minimal impacts, in part due to urban areas’ resilience.
“This drought is serving as a stress test for California’s water management systems,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center and a co-author of the report. “Californians have worked hard to limit its impacts, but the experience has also revealed major gaps in our readiness to cope with the droughts we expect in the future.”
The report says that ongoing drought will increase the need for emergency actions to get drinking water to rural communities and prevent extinctions of fish and large-scale death of waterbirds. The state also needs to start longer-term planning to build resilience so that fewer decisions are made on an emergency basis. Some key areas where both short- and long-term drought planning is essential include:
- Groundwater: State and federal support is needed now for tools to facilitate implementation of the new groundwater law. Addressing short-term impacts of pumping, such as harm to infrastructure from sinking lands, may require charging fees or limiting new wells in some areas. Longer term, better management of groundwater will ensure it continues to serve as the primary drought supply.
- Rural Communities: Emergency support programs need to expand and improve. Priorities include making it easier for individuals to seek help if their wells run dry. Because many dry wells are unlikely to return to normal even after rains return, longer term solutions are needed to address water supply and quality in these communities.
- Biodiversity: Short term, strategies to improve flows for imperiled fish may help. Expanding the state’s program of conservation hatcheries—those specifically run to protect biodiversity—could also stave off some extinctions. Similarly, risks to waterbirds could be reduced by paying farmers to temporarily flood fields at key times. A long term drought plan for ecosystems is needed.
- Wildfires: Suppressing fires is the only real short-term option, but this will become harder if forest conditions worsen. A long-term strategy of improved forestry and fire management—with strong federal participation—is needed, and will require sustained efforts over large areas for decades.
“If the drought continues, emergency programs will need to be significantly expanded to get drinking water to rural residents and prevent major losses of waterbirds and extinctions of native fish species,” said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center. “California needs a longer-term effort to build drought resilience in the most vulnerable areas.”
The report, What If the California Drought Continues?, is supported with funding from the California Water Foundation, an initiative of the Resources Legacy Fund. The authors, in addition to Hanak and Mount, are Caitrin Chappelle, associate director of the PPIC Water Policy Center; Jay Lund, adjunct fellow at PPIC and director of the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences; Josué Medellín-Azuara, senior researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences; Peter Moyle, associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences; and Nathaniel Seavy, research director for the Pacific Coast and Central Valley at Point Blue Conservation Science.
See this news release on the PPIC website here.
SACRAMENTO, CA — As Californians continue pumping groundwater in response to the historic drought, the Department of Water Resources today released a new NASA report showing land in the San Joaquin Valley is sinking faster than ever before, nearly two inches per month in some locations.
“Because of increased pumping, groundwater levels are reaching record lows—up to 100 feet lower than previous records,” said Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin. “As extensive groundwater pumping continues, the land is sinking more rapidly and this puts nearby infrastructure at greater risk of costly damage.”
Sinking land, known as subsidence, has occurred for decades in California because of excessive groundwater pumping during drought conditions, but the new NASA data shows the sinking is happening faster, putting infrastructure on the surface at growing risk of damage. NASA obtained the subsidence data by comparing satellite images of the Earth’s surface over time.
Land near Corcoran in the Tulare basin sank 13 inches in just eight months—about 1.6 inches per month. One area in the Sacramento Valley was sinking approximately half-an-inch per month, faster than previous measurements. NASA also found areas near the California Aqueduct sank up to 12.5 inches, with eight inches of that occurring in just four months of 2014.
The increased subsidence rates have the potential to damage local, state, and federal infrastructure, including aqueducts, bridges, roads, and flood control structures. Long-term subsidence has already destroyed thousands of public and private groundwater well casings in the San Joaquin Valley. Over time, subsidence can permanently reduce the underground aquifer’s water storage capacity.
In response to the new findings, and as part of an ongoing effort to respond to the effects of California’s historic drought, the Governor’s Drought Task Force has committed to working with affected communities to develop near-term and long-term recommendations to reduce the rate of sinking and address risks to infrastructure. This action builds on the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, enacted by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. in September 2014, which requires local governments to form sustainable groundwater agencies that will regulate pumping and recharge to better manage groundwater supplies.
“Groundwater acts as a savings account to provide supplies during drought, but the NASA report shows the consequences of excessive withdrawals as we head into the fifth year of historic drought,” Director Cowin said. “We will work together with counties, local water districts, and affected communities to identify ways to slow the rate of subsidence and protect vital infrastructure such as canals, pumping stations, bridges, and wells.”
The Department of Water Resources is also launching a $10 million program to help counties with stressed groundwater basins to develop or strengthen local ordinances and conservation plans. This funding comes from the statewide Water Bond passed last year, and applications for funding will be posted in the coming days. This year’s budget passed in July also enables streamlined environmental review for any county ordinance that reduces groundwater pumping.
NASA will also continue its subsidence monitoring, using data from the European Space Agency’s recently launched Sentinel-1 mission to cover a broader area and identify more vulnerable locations.
DWR also completed a recent land survey along the Aqueduct–which found 70-plus miles in Fresno, Kings, and Kern counties sank more than 1.25 feet in two years–and will now conduct a system-wide evaluation of subsidence along the California Aqueduct and the condition of State Water Project facilities. The evaluation will help the department develop a capital improvement program to repair damage from subsidence. Past evaluations found that segments of the Aqueduct from Los Banos to Lost Hills sank more than five feet since construction.
The report, Progress Report: Subsidence in the Central Valley, California, prepared for DWR by researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is available here:
See the original news release from the California Department of Water Resources here.
By Peter King
A sprawl of sewage treatment plants, recharge basins and desalination facilities, stretching out across an industrial backlot near Rancho Cucamonga.
A collection of slender, solar-powered telemetry towers rising from an almond orchard in the San Joaquin Valley to bring high-tech efficiency to irrigation.
And, at a university research station near Irvine, three Potemkin Village-like suburban houses in a row, offering a new vision of the traditional lawn.
Mindful that only nature can whip a drought, those who study and manage water in California are focused not on the current epic, but on better preparing the state for the next drought, and the drought after that, and the drought after that.
The desalination plants, the lawn-less yards and the tech-savvy approach to irrigation are just a few examples of that new water-saving landscape. Gone will be the massive projects once erected to battle water shortages. In their place will be a host of incremental measures, each designed to do more with what nature provides.
The environmental toll and political challenges associated with “moving the rain,” as the Shasta Dam’s purpose was once described by a hardhat working on the project, will require solutions that appear to be more like buckshot than the silver bullets of the past.
Peter Brostrom, a state Department of Water Resources official responsible for finding water efficiencies, talks about taking “a variety of small steps across the board,” such as thinning overgrown forests, shoring up leaky delivery systems and building more coherent and uniform data about water supply and usage.
Randy Fiorini, a third-generation Turlock grower who serves as chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, says it’s time to move on from waiting for Shasta-scaled water storage projects that once were the Holy Grail of California agriculture, but have become increasingly politically problematic. Instead, he advocates a push for smaller, less controversial reservoir projects backed by “local champions.”
“There are a lot of smaller projects on the drawing boards around the state,” he has written, “and we could actually get many of them built in the near future.”
Whatever individual measures are pursued, everyone understands the most opportune time to gain ground is now: When a drought ends, and they all eventually do, the rains wash away the general urgency and intensified focus on all things water.
“One way to put it is that you try to get as much as you can out of a drought,” said Martha Davis, who in the 1970s helped lead a movement that both saved Mono Lake and introduced Los Angeles to low-flow toilets.
“Another way to think about it,” she said from her office at the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in Chino, “is that a drought pushes us and shows where we are not prepared, and also shows us what is working in one place, and what may work in other places.”
Californians today consume roughly a quarter less water per capita than they did two decades ago, while irrigation innovations have allowed growers to achieve greater crop yields without additional water — progress that was prodded along by three previous droughts.
Among the more optimistic water thinkers, there’s hope that the severity of the current epic might fundamentally alter how Californians use and think about water. It is a transformation, they say, that will become more a matter of necessity than nobility as population growth and climate change influence the supply-and-demand equation.
“If California is going to have 50 million people,” Gov. Jerry Brown has said, “they’re not going to live the same way the native people lived, much less the way people do today. … You have to find a more elegant way of relating to material things. You have to use them with greater sensitivity and sophistication.”
At the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, new thinking about its water portfolio began about 15 years ago.
It laid the infrastructure for large-scale recycling projects, including the world’s largest indoor composting facility, situated in a former Ikea warehouse. It retooled flood control systems to capture rain runoff for underground storage, rather than rush it out to the Pacific. It deployed de-salters to clean underground water polluted by runoff from dairies and steel plants. It put in programs to encourage native landscapes.
It has been expensive: an estimated $500 million. But it also has been effective. Overall, locally developed water supplies have risen by 50% and the agency’s reliance on imported water has fallen by 40%.
“Hopefully we are building a sustainable system to get us through the next 100 years,” said Joe Grindstaff, general manager of the agency that supplies wholesale water for 830,000 residents in seven municipalities.
Of course, meaningful progress must involve the sector where the bulk of California’s developed water is put to work: farms.
Some agricultural leaders make the case that forces of change already have begun to influence practices in the state’s growing regions, particularly in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.
One is economic. The trend has been to plant more trees and vines and far fewer forage crops such as alfalfa. Fruits and nuts are more lucrative — the dollar value of the California agricultural economy has doubled in two decades — but they are also multiyear investments that require reliable sources of water.
At the same time, the go-to source for water in droughts — underground reserves — is becoming harder to get to. As water tables drop, the price of pumping goes up. And in any case, the state’s recently enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act means a new sheriff is coming to town.
Full implementation of the act is a good two decades away; local agencies must first develop plans to replenish and manage underground supplies to make them sustainable for the long haul. As the plans evolve into action, it is widely believed that the result in some farming regions will be that significant acreage will be taken out of production.
Meanwhile, it is expected that market forces eventually will work to place a higher premium on agricultural water.
“Economists have for years argued that the market should determine the value of water,” Dan Dooley, a water lawyer who helped draft the groundwater legislation, noted in a speech in April. “Instead the price for most water is determined almost exclusively by the cost of the infrastructure to deliver it to the customer, not by the value of water itself.”
California growers, he said, “increasingly see water as an asset. … This change in how water is viewed will also alter how water is managed.”
For starters, it will make efficiencies even more attractive, especially to younger generations who grew up in an era of heightened environmental awareness and increased access to technological advances.
Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, cites one example: a young man who visited the district’s Manteca office and was struck by the inefficiency of flood irrigation and high-volume sprinklers.
“He was just out of Fresno State, and he came to me and said, ‘Really? This is how we are still irrigating? A guy in a truck opens up a gate and lets the water go and comes back in five hours and closes the gate. That’s the best we can do?’”
From that encounter came a pressurized water system, powered by solar and high-efficiency motors, that feeds water on demand to farmers’ drip irrigation systems. Data relayed from towers arrayed within the orchards allow growers to determine from ground sensors when and how long to irrigate, and to order water delivery to their drip systems by computer or smartphone.
“They can be on a beach in Hawaii and take care of their irrigation,” Shields said. And use considerably less water in the process.
At present, the pilot project, now in its third growing season, involves just 3,000 of the district’s 50,000 acres. But, Shields said, it has the capacity to be employed more broadly: “It’s scalable, absolutely it’s scalable.”
What flood irrigation is to agriculture, the front yard is fast becoming to the residential sector. Landscaping accounts for half of urban water use in California, running as high as 80% in some localities.
And so, with mandatory conservation edicts, brown lawns and plastic turf have become emblems of this drought, just as bricks in toilets were during the 1970s drought. What’s not clear is whether the response will outlast the emergency and, more to the point, whether it represents an enduring transformation in the way residential Californians regard water.
“Old habits are hard to break,” said Jerry Brown, general manager of the Contra Costa Water District. “People have their ways, and I’m not sure society is ready to say a beautiful house doesn’t require a nice green lawn out front.”
Still, water consumption in the Contra Costa County district was down 40% in June from the same month in 2013.
Shifts do happen. A Los Angeles sky not choked with smog was once thought unimaginable. The state’s response to the energy crisis of 15 years ago also offers an instructive parallel. California entered the crisis facing the prospect of rolling blackouts and criticism of its failure to build more power plants. It emerged, after two years of double-digit conservation, with a fundamental shift in thinking and consumer behavior.
What the state needed was not additional generation capacity. What it needed was to manage demand, to conserve, during the 400 hours a year or so when supplies were potentially tight. It was a conversation-altering breakthrough.
“People always tend to focus on the supply side,” said Wally McGuire, primary architect of the state’s Flex Your Power conservation campaign. “But the demand side of the equation is equally powerful.”
Flex Your Power lives on today as Flex Alert, which calls on Californians to move into conservation mode when supplies tighten. In the few times Flex Alert has been activated, the response has matched or bettered that seen in the energy crisis.
“People are generally good” is how McGuire described the driving premise behind Flex You Power, “and they will do the right thing.”
Movement toward lasting change is easier when the destination can be visualized. At the University of California agricultural research center in Irvine, an 8-year-old demonstration project shows how alternative landscaping doesn’t have to be all cacti and lava rocks.
Three beige classrooms have been outfitted and landscaped to resemble a row of suburban homes, complete with white picket fences. They are not-so-poetically identified as residences A, B and C. A offers conventional landscaping: fescue lawn, birch trees and boxwood. B’s plants and grasses are better suited to a Mediterranean climate. C’s are natives: sedge grasses, manzanita and sycamores.
All three seem fetching enough. The difference is that B requires about half as much water as A, and C even less.
Tammy Majcherek, a UC community educator, said requests from municipal landscapers and private gardeners to tour the project have picked up as the drought persists.
“I am not sure the old mindset has changed,” she said, “but I think maybe we are beginning to turn the corner.”