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Secretary Ross views Ag water solutions – from the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Secretary Karen Ross hearing about water usage and conservation at a Santa Cruz County farm this week.

By Donna Jones

The first step toward finding solutions to long-standing groundwater overdraft in the Pajaro Valley was to acknowledge the problem and agriculture’s contribution to it, said Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s Strawberry Associates Inc.

Reiter’s remark came during a visit by California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross to Driscoll’s Watsonville headquarters Tuesday.

The visit, which also included a stop at a raspberry farm on Holohan Road, showcased Driscoll’s efforts to tackle the groundwater problem in advance of a campaign aimed at raising the profile of the business community in the state conversation about water. The push, organized by Ceres, a nonprofit advocate of sustainable economies, is set to launch in March.

“We’re still more of the problem than the solution, but we have a tremendous amount of motivation,” said Reiter, who’s involved in water policy at the state level as well. “We absolutely need this resource for our business, and we live in the communities where we operate.”

The Pajaro Valley has been consuming about 12,000 acre-feet more groundwater than is recharged by annual rainfall for decades. The result has been dropping levels of fresh water in the aquifer and saltwater intrusion.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, or enough, on average, to irrigate a half-acre of strawberries.

After years of strife over the issue, Driscoll’s spearheaded the formation of the Community Water Dialogue, a coalition of farmers, landowners and resource agencies, to find answers.

The issue is crucial for Driscoll’s, Reiter said, because its crops are almost all grown in areas that rely on groundwater and overdraft is not confined to the Pajaro Valley. He said he came to believe the problem could be solved, and that the best solution would come from the people who helped create it.

In the Pajaro Valley, agriculture is responsible for about 85 percent of water consumption.

Emily Paddock, water resources manager for Driscoll’s Northern District, detailed the accomplishments of the coalition, such as installation of a wireless network that allows farmers throughout the valley to monitor irrigation remotely to ensure efficient water use.

Paddock also said since 2013 Driscoll’s has required its growers to track and report water use through electronic devices installed on wells. The tracking aims to identify problem areas to fix and successful practices to share, she said.

Ross said Californians are rethinking water policy in light of the drought, and there’s a potential for more holistic policies than in the past. For example, when the state adopted storm water regulations, capturing runoff wasn’t part of the conversation.

“The issue has renewed everyone’s focus on reusing water, recycling water, knowing where every molecule of water is going,” Ross said. “This is an opportunity for us.”

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