Must See Video
Growing Crops in a Desert
An excellent Vice News video on farming, cities and the drought.
|Sucking down water|
Central Valley almond trees reflected in flooded irrigation water.
- Many farmers and businessmen sneer at "crazy" environmentalists who talk about sustainability. But water is truly a limited resource. There are only so many crops that can be grown in a desert.
(Grist.org) - To many people — particularly environmentalists and family-farm aficionados — the Westlands Water District, on the dusty west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley, conjures up an image of a sprawling empire of large-scale agribusiness. Roughly 600 farmers own land within the district, and grow a veritable cornucopia of tomatoes, almonds, pistachios, lettuce, cantaloupes, grapes, and other crops.
Many farms here are huge, to be sure: One family farms at least 25,000 acres. But there are plenty of smaller farmers like 42-year-old Shawn Coburn, who grows 1,200 acres of mostly almonds. And to him, Westlands is an American Eden.
“There’s a long list of haters,” says Coburn. But “we have the best dirt out there. It’s the best ground in the world.”
There’s only one problem. While the soil here may be good, there’s not much water. At least not since 2007, when a federal judge drastically cut back farmers’ water supplies to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river delta in the geographic heart of the state. A three-year drought began clobbering California that same year, making life even tougher for farmers like Coburn.
In 2009, farmers in Westlands had their annual water supply rationed to just 10 percent of what they’re entitled to under their contracts with the federal government. (More about that later.) Here and in neighboring irrigation districts, farmers were forced to idle, or “fallow,” about a quarter-million acres of cropland because of drought and pumping restrictions, which cost them somewhere around $350 million in losses.
Farms in Westlands make up a little less than one-tenth of the roughly 6.9 million acres of farmland in California, and other parts of the state are facing their own water crunch. But paradoxically, no one has been hit harder than the farmers here. Despite being widely viewed as one of the most powerful participants in California water politics, Westland’s contracts for water from the federal government are some of the most vulnerable to being shorted, thanks to the arcane hierarchy by which water is apportioned during dry times.
The water shortage is unquestionably taking its toll. “It’s changing the landscape,” says Coburn. What’s happening here is providing a sneak peek at the problems that farmers not only in California, but all over this drying world, will soon confront. Farmers are shifting to higher dollar-value crops that will cover the water price hikes — but, paradoxically, are more sensitive to drought. They’re pumping groundwater as an emergency supply of water — and burning through that safety net even as it saves them from the current dry spell. And some farmers here are beginning to think about an exit strategy from agriculture altogether.
Water shipment down
On a farm, nothing happens without water. And in California’s Central Valley, which includes the Sacramento Valley to the north and the San Joaquin Valley to the south, virtually all of the farmed acreage is irrigated. Irrigation districts like Westlands are local-government entities that hold long-term contracts for water supplied by two massive water projects: the Central Valley Project, which is operated by the federal government, and the State Water Project. The districts, in turn, sell water to individual farmers within their boundaries.
Yet as demand for water has grown throughout the state, as efforts to protect endangered species have increased, and as drought has darkened the water forecast — a problem that’s likely to become more frequent with climate change — irrigation districts, particularly those on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, have found themselves increasingly unable to supply farmers with water. Even though Westlands, for instance, holds water contracts with the federal government, it signed those contracts relatively late, compared with other districts. As a result, when water supplies are tight, the government “shorts” Westlands’ contract to ensure that other irrigation districts with better contracts get their water.
That water crunch is spurring farmers to make a wide array of adaptive responses. Water rights are generally tied to specific pieces of land, but water can be moved — bought, sold, and swapped, just like stocks — to areas of greatest demand, and diverted to those who can pay the most for water. In drought years like 2009, farmers make extensive use of transfers to cover water-supply reductions. But the less water is in supply, the dearer prices become.
Water shortages are also changing the menu of crops grown in California. Take the case of cotton, for instance. Cotton has long a favorite whipping boy of environmentalists and agricultural reformers because it is government subsidized and relatively thirsty. In 1979, California farmers grew about 1.6 million acres of the stuff. But over the past three decades, cotton has largely shuffled off the stage in California. In 2009, the state’s farmers grew only 191,000 acres.
Many farmers say that one of the primary factors behind that decline, in recent years especially, has been water scarcity, which has driven up prices for water. Cotton has never had spectacular margins, so farmers are always vulnerable to big increases in the price of the “inputs” it takes to grow the crop. And, in the face of the water cutoffs, Westlands farmers have had to pay as much as four times what they normally do for water.
“That’s what drove cotton out of the west side,” says Marvin Meyers, a longtime Westlands farmer who now grows mostly almonds and olives. Farmers who use the water to grow higher-value crops like almonds “can afford to pay more,” Meyers says, “because the almond returns are greater than you would have gotten for cotton.”Read More . . . .