By Jessica Mendoza
Like all California farmers, Don Cameron is used to long dry spells interrupted by wet years. Drought and flood, he says, have always been a way of life in the Golden State.
But in 36 years of farming, Mr. Cameron says he’s never experienced anything like the swings of the past six years.
(Note – Don Cameron is a member of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture)
“We’ve never seen a drought that long or that intense,” says Cameron, general manager of Terranova Ranch, a 7,000-acre farm in Helm, Calif. “And we’ve never seen a change overnight from absolutely nothing in the reservoirs to now, they’re spilling water.”
In response, Cameron and his crew have been partially submerging their fields in rainwater. It’s a relatively new tactic to capture excess flow during wet years to recharge the diminishing underground aquifer that farmers in the region rely on to irrigate their crop. It’s also used to reduce the risk of flooding downstream.
“We want to take as much floodwater [as possible] to take pressure off the system,” Cameron says.
The very welcome news is that severe drought conditions in California are easing or ending. But a sequence of extremes – a record-setting five-year drought, followed by what’s shaping up to be the wettest year in decades – is serving as an alert for officials and residents alike. And it’s pushing change among some of the state’s most politically conservative citizens: farmers. Call it taking care of the land. Call it good business sense. Just don’t call it climate change.
Some, like Cameron, are looking to new approaches to recharge groundwater. Others are calling for more storage to capture rainwater during wet periods, or applying technology to farm effectively with less water. As part of broader efforts to manage and improve the state’s water infrastructure, such efforts could be crucial to California’s ability to serve a growing population while producing food at current levels.
“When you talk about addressing the problem of extremes, you’re talking about having more eggs in the management basket,” says Lorraine Flint, a research hydrologist at the California Water Science Center, which collects and analyzes data for the US Geological Survey (USGS). “We have to look at the big picture and manage all aspects of the hydrologic system. That includes the vegetation and the soil and the infrastructure.”
“This is where the paradigm shift needs to happen,” she adds. “You have to have a healthy watershed.”
For five years, California’s debilitating drought decimated forests, tormented farmers, and forced legislators to enact statewide emergency conservation measures. Then early this year, a series of atmospheric rivers – long columns carrying enough water vapor to match “average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River” – made landfall in Northern California. The rain and snow that followed filled parched reservoirs and accumulated in snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Now, with rain still falling in parts of the state, the National Drought Mitigation Center has declared about 75 percent of California out of the drought.
The precipitation drew attention to the state’s infrastructure – aging and poorly-maintained roads, bridges, levees, and dams that couldn’t withstand the sudden surge in storms.
In February, damage to the concrete spillways at Oroville Dam forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people in surrounding towns. The same month, San Jose became the site of massive flooding after officials were forced to release water from Santa Clara County’s Anderson Dam. Levee breaches in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties also led to flooding. And residents near Big Sur in the state’s Central Coast are still struggling with their daily commute more than a month after mud- and rockslides led to the closure of a 48-mile stretch of Highway 1.
“We’ve got a water infrastructure [system] that doesn’t have any forgiveness in it,” says David Zoldoske, director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno. “Recent weather conditions have pushed it to the brink.”