California Water Crisis: Pressure on Agriculture to Do Even More

April 13, 2015 09:02 AM
California Water Crisis: Pressure on Agriculture to Do Even More

California agriculture is under scrutiny right now. It's a state that's very diverse, growing more than 400 crops. Nearly half the nations' fruits, vegetables and nuts come from that one state. They also rank first in milk production, but the current drought is jeopardizing all of that. 

“You can't have all good years,” says Dave Campbell, California rancher. “You take the good with the bad, but when you get four bad ones in a row it starts to wear on you.”

As Campbell overlooks his parched ranchland, it's a picture that's become too familiar the past few years. 

“We should be standing in knee-high grass this time of year right now, and as you can see, there's just nothing here,” he says.

With bare soil, this ranchland is already overgrazed. And with not enough feed, he'll be forced to sell his cattle this month, which is at least a month earlier than he'd hoped. It’s all to save the little grass he has left. Many of the state's ranchers are facing at the same dilemma. 

“Some will continue to cut back and some will buy feed to try to save what they can,” explains Campbell.

His pasture isn't the only parcel of land needing a drink. The latest drought monitor shows nearly the entire state is experiencing some level of drought, with nearly 45 percent in the most extreme category. The most recent snow pack survey confirms what many already knew. That vital moisture needed to fill reservoirs and irrigation isn’t there.  

“As you can clearly see, there is no snow at this location,” says California Water Resources ‘ Frank Gehrke, who measures the snowpack each month. “This is the first year, in its measurements going back to 1942 where this snow course has been bare."

With the statewide snowpack already hitting record lows, it's a dire situation calling for desperate measures.

“We're in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action,” Governor Jerry Brown said during that April snowpack survey.

In what the Governor calls a very detailed executive order, he is demanding a 25 percent reduction in water use. It’s on local water agencies to decide where to cut.

“It's going to affect gulf courses, people's lawns, universities, campuses, all sorts of institutions, the median with vegetation on our roads and highways, it affects all of that,” says Brown.

The city of Long Beach, California already came up with a unique solution, encouraging people to rip out their water hungry yards and plant a drought-tolerant garden instead. In return, the city is offering up to $3,500 in cash. 

“I will water if I move something just to get it established, but we rarely turn on our drip system at all,” says Katherine Rusconi, a drought-tolerant gardener.

For the residents that make the change, they know this isn't just a short-term fix. 

“This isn't the first drought that California’s experienced, and it will always be a desert climate. We should think like that,” she says.

Currently, statistics show California uses 80 percent of the state's developed water. That’s water that moves through pipes and aqueducts. Now that widely used figure is also being debated. California Water Alliance says when you remove the environmental factors out of the equation, that number is closer to 40 percent.

No matter the figure, agriculture is coming under intense pressure to do more, especially since the Governor’s mandatory cuts didn’t include agriculture. Some argue California’s climate isn't conducive for the state's current agriculture picture, and water intensive crops shouldn't be grown here. During a heated meeting with top California water officials last week, Western Growers Association argued the opposite.

“So when somebody says farmers haven't been asked to do enough, I point to the farmers who have had zero water delivered, who've had to rip out trees, who've had to lay off thousands of farm workers,” says Dave Puglia, WGA Senior Vice President.

California farm bureau says last year 500,000 acres were forced out of production due to water shortages. This year, that number will double.

CFB President Paul Wenger is also telling growers they need to be ready for tough conversations over water. With the mandatory cuts, he says the drought just became real for millions of Californians. He’s telling growers to be honest and forthright, but those conversations need to happen.”

“I tell folks in Sacramento and in D.C., how dare you think that the best way to get through a water short-year is to tell a farmer who has to pay their property tax and their workers that they have to idle their land,” says Wenger. “You can't idle a permanent crop. That’s a huge investment.”

For now, farmers and ranchers are just trying to get by, not knowing just how many more days of this drought they can take. 

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