Lessons from a California Drought

January 30, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Rain finally arrived in California this past December with a series of storms dumping deluges across the state. So much rain fell that localised flooding and landslides were a concern. Whether this means that the three-year drought, which stands to be the driest “in over a millennium” is breaking, however, is far from certain.

The drought has devastated California’s agriculture and driven LA residents to rip out their lush green lawns. There has been something apocalyptic in the air as farmers drained the state’s aquifers last year, and vast reservoirs were sucked dry, sparking water wars. As 2015 begins, 99% of the state is rated ‘abnormally dry’.

It has been much debated whether climate change has been at work across California – and the western United States more generally. At a global level, 2014 is now confirmed as the warmest year on record. Noted scientist Peter Gleick argues that the rising temperatures in California along with atmospheric shifts (like the band of high pressure that sat along the Pacific coast in 2013 keeping storms at bay) are the “fingerprints” of human-induced climate change and they’ve been making the drought worse. But the western United States is also naturally arid – early explorers labelled the region the ‘Great American Desert’ on their maps.

Critical drought has been impacting agriculture around the world. BBC Radio 4’s Shared Planet programme recently reported on the impact of drought in East Africa and the plight of pastoralists in the region, while the drought in Brazil, which is hitting its three most populous regions, is being characterised as “the worst… since 1930”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly warned that drought will increasingly impact food security across the world, and water management must be given greater consideration. This is one area where the water issues of California and the western United States might offer a significant lesson on living in drought.

Gleick points out further that drought is defined by a disparity between rainfall and consumption: there is only a drought when we need more water than we have. Gleick’s argument is that we have reached ‘peak water’ in the western US – there is simply not enough to go around. Water management in this region was driven by US imperialism: its extensive waterways – notably the Colorado, Platte and Rio Grande – were harnessed to make the land habitable by early settlers. The west was developed to be lived in and the damning of its many rivers allowed this by making agriculture possible. This worked while populations were small. But during the twentieth century, the west became heavily populated and today many of its cities are among the fastest growing in the United States. California now has the most significant agricultural region in the country, with its most valuable crop, the very thirsty almond, accounting for 80% of global almond production. Up to half of US fruit and vegetables are grown in California’s Central Valley and the state’s agricultural exports are worth some $21 billion.

This development has been helped along by the cheap cost of water in the United States. It is a resource with little relationship between its cost and how much of it there is to use. Neither the infrastructure costs of delivering water nor the costs of environmental damage from its overuse are figured into its price. This general lack of true cost accounting has left little incentive to conserve water. Journalist Cynthia Barnett comments that, “The problems [drought, pollution, ageing water systems] are also laying bare the flawed way we pay for water — one that practically guarantees pipes will burst, farmers will use as much as they can and automatic sprinklers will whir over desiccating aquifers.”

The drought has hit California’s food production hard, and has raised questions about its long-term sustainability. The scarcity of rain and the shrinking reservoirs have forced farmers to turn to pumping groundwater and digging deeper and deeper wells, depleting aquifers in the process. Unlike other western states, California has only recently introduced legislation in response to the drought.

Chris Sayer of Petty Ranch in Ventura County is fortunate to farm in one of the few groundwater basins in the state that has had management. This means that water levels are monitored, usage metered and active steps taken to recharge the groundwater. As a result, Sayer says, “It is one of the few basins that is not in crisis… In most of the state… there is, at best, a general sense of how much might be down there, no active measures to replace it, and only loose approximations of how much is withdrawn.” Sayer’s groundwater has helped his farm survive but it doesn’t come without other problems – it contains salts that can build up in the soil and ultimately make the land unusable. Consequently, soil health is a critical concern. The build up of salts in the soil due to irrigation has led to the loss of an average of 5,000 acres of productive food producing land globally, every day for the last 20 years.

As organic farmers worldwide know, healthy soil lies at the root of every sustainable system and when water is scarce it absorbs and retains water better, resisting erosion. Humus in the soil – its stable organic matter – facilitates water’s downward movement through the soil. The more humus in soil, the more effectively it does this – every gram of humus can retain 20 grams of water. Soil’s texture is also significant here, as humus helps bind soil into aggregates, which keep it loose and granular and not compacted.

Judith Redmond at Full Belly Farm was also dependent on groundwater this past year because the creek that usually irrigates her crops through the dry season ran completely dry. The farm’s resilience lay also in changing its crops – they gave up growing sweetcorn entirely, for example – and in paying close attention to water conservation using drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers. Full Belly Farm has recently received the 2014 California Leopold Conservation Award for its land stewardship and conservation in agriculture. But water conservation is not a reflex of many Californians. Redmond comments that:

“Californians are living beyond the availability of water resources to satisfy their current habits and a great deal of damage to the natural environment is one sad result. Everyone needs to learn to use water more efficiently… This includes agricultural users, urban users and other industrial sectors. A firm line is needed beyond which we do not continue to degrade the natural environment.”

Chris Sayer echoes Redmond’s commitment to water conservation, when he says “We try to farm as if there is always a drought.” He’s been using a micro-sprinkler system for 20 years now, and the farm works with a local lab to assess soil moisture so it uses just the right amount of water in its irrigation. Sayer has also altered the crops he grows due to the drought. He is growing more figs now because they use much less water than his avocados and lemons and can survive without any supplemental water. The shifting of crops that both Petty Ranch and Full Belly Farm have made is indicative of how we will need to think about what to grow where as the climate changes. The thirsty almond industry in California, for example, may have to scale back and change its ways.

The dairy and beef sector has also been hit hard by the drought, including the organic sector where cows are pastured. Pastured livestock requires grass, and grass, of course, requires water. Sallie Calhoun and Matt Christiano of Paicines Ranch near Hollister, California, felt the impact of the drought almost immediately, as their grazing is completely dependent on rain rather than irrigation. The farm is grazed using holistic management methods, which are designed to cultivate rich perennial grasses. Calhoun notes that “We concentrate on managing our grasslands to increase resilience in the face of increasing rainfall variability and rising temperatures. We work to increase soil cover, soil carbon, and biodiversity.” Land conservation and soil health are again priorities and the farm is involved in the Soil Carbon Challenge, which assesses what management practices can improve soil carbon.

Whether this drought has been wrought by climate change may be debatable; what is not debatable is that climate change is happening and it will intensify drought in many parts of the world. There must be a fundamental change in our relationship with water in both agricultural, industrial and domestic use. The cost of water, water management and attitudes towards conservation are long due a significant revamp as the impact of climate change is more and more in evidence. Paying water’s real cost, making conservation an integral farming practice and adopting methods that increase rather than reduce soil’s organic matter must become the norm for all farmers seeking to sustain their businesses in a drier, hotter world.

Photograph: Robert Couse-Baker

Alicia Miller

Alicia Miller runs Troed y Rhiw Organics, an organic horticulture farm in West Wales, with her partner Nathan Richards. Born in the United States, she’s a long way from home but loves her life in the wild west of Wales. She works as a freelance writer and editor and understands sustainable food from the hands on perspective of growing food on a small family-run farm. She graduated with distinction from Stanford University and is currently pursuing a phd at Birkbeck College, University of London, writing on issues of artists practice and gentrification.

Tags: building resilient food systems, climate change, drought, water management