(Photo: Willy Blackmore)

Farming Without Water

As California faces its fourth year of drought, the farmers who supply half of U.S. fruits and vegetables are trying to figure out how to conserve their scarcest resource.
Jun 29, 2015· 9 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

In late June, Mike Cirone began harvesting the apricot trees on his farm set in the dry hills of narrow See Canyon, a short, windy drive from San Luis Obispo, a sleepy college town on California’s Central Coast. For months, the chaparral surrounding his 40 acres of fruit trees has worn the drab brown of summer after the green of winter and spring was burned off by a record-setting March heat wave. Here, as in all but 0.14 percent of the state, history-making dry weather has persisted for more than four years; more than 70 percent of the state is suffering from extreme or exceptional drought.

Despite apocalyptic headlines promising the End of California, a dire prophecy for the broad swath of semiarid agricultural land that feeds the country, Cirone is optimistic—a rare attitude for a farmer to have toward the weather here these days. “I think things look OK at the moment,” he said a few weeks before harvest, despite the dry, hot weather. “In fact,” when it comes to the apricots, “they look really good.” Stone fruit, he explained, like it a little dry.

That’s a far better assessment than you might hear on other farms around California. The drought, according to a new report from the University of California, Davis, could cost farmers $3 billion in 2015, with 18,000 jobs lost and 564,000 acres of farmland fallowed. With surface water deliveries at just 60 percent of normal and the high price tag for drilling a well down into the dwindling groundwater supply, other fruit and nut farmers are having to debate tearing out their orchards altogether.

Oddly, consumers aren't getting caught in the dustup as of yet. Prices haven’t gone up significantly due to the drought—USDA estimates 2 to 3 percent in 2015, which is less than average food-price inflation—and we can't exactly turn away from California to Mexico for our fruits and vegetable, as our neighbor and NAFTA partner's own farming regions are suffering from dry weather too. No, we'll continue to get a significant amount of our food from California—but the abuse of resources that doing so may require could do extensive damage.

Things are different for Cirone though: He doesn’t irrigate his apricots. Same goes for the apple, pear, and plum trees on the property. Unlike the majority of farmers in the state, who rely on water that may have travelled hundreds of miles to reach them, passing through any number of channels and reservoirs and pipes and pumps along the way, Cirone is a dry farmer—his trees survive on rainfall and coastal fog alone.

(Photo: Lauren Wade)

Cirone is an aberration in modern-day California, which has more irrigated acres of farmland than any other state. For more than a century, private co-ops, individuals, and the state and federal government have treated water much like William Mulholland, the civil engineer who headed up Los Angeles’ water utility in the early 20th century, suggested. When, in 1913, the California Aqueduct first began to drain the waters of the Eastern Sierra’s wet Owens Valley for Los Angeles’ benefit, the architect of the infamous water grab declared, “There it is. Take it.”

This is a real drought—it has a lot of real implications beyond our little farming dreams

Mike Cirone, Farmer

Wetlands have been drained, reservoirs built, rivers dammed, channels dug, pipelines laid, creating the water infrastructure that allows California to grow nearly half of the U.S.’ fruit, nuts, and vegetables. The Central Valley alone, which accounts for just 1 percent of the nation’s farmland, produces a quarter of that food. And while certain crops, such as almonds and alfalfa, suck up more water than others, the obsession with how many gallons of water it takes to produce a nut, a leaf, or a fruit suggests that simply changing the way we eat could solve the problem.

The more than 1,200 miles of irrigation canals that comprise the two major water projects in the state would beg to differ. No number of dry-farmed orchards or farms planted with drought-tolerant crops will keep the water pumps from running.

Despite the massive efforts to wrest control over the state’s water—which is equally capable of wreaking havoc with floods as it is droughts—California’s economy, the eighth-largest in the world, could survive without the 2 percent of GDP that agriculture represents. However, the rest of the United States (and other countries) could not. The Central Valley is, after all, the largest single piece of class 1 soil—the best, most fertile—in the world.

But even the best soil can’t realize its potential if it’s bone-dry. Despite what Cirone’s successes may suggest, farming without water in the West on a large scale would require a seismic shift in what’s being grown. It’s not without precedent: After the mother lode was tapped and California shifted from a gold economy to an agricultural one, few farmers were irrigating their crops. In 1869, there were between 60,000 and 100,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the state; today, that figure is 9 million. But while California’s farms were growing food for export in the 19th century, much as they are today, they were growing a whole lot of wheat. And as we’ve come to learn in the current drought, crops like almonds and other fruits and vegetables, unlike cereal grains, need a lot of water to thrive.

(Photo: Willy Blackmore)

“This country can’t afford to just shut down California ag,” said Jeff Dahlberg, center director for Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, part of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “We’re going to have to have a conversation about using water more efficiently.”

As the drought drags on, everyone from Mother Jones to The New York Times has run graphic-driven pieces that associate portions of food with the amount of water they take to grow. It’s a highly effective means of making the gargantuan, impersonal drought bite-size—a handful of almonds, a dozen gallons of water—but the implication is that decisions regarding what’s grown where and how much water is used are wholly in the hands of farmers and, to a lesser degree, consumers. But the state’s water system quite literally runs much deeper and higher than any given farm: More than a century of development, state and federal policy, water rights, and demand has helped to shape the thirsty ag industry that we’ve come to rely on.

Rather than boycotting almonds, California needs to come up with a very complicated answer to a simple question: How can we use less water?

The problem is, there’s simply more of California vying for increasingly smaller amounts of water: more people, higher yields, denser forests. The delta smelt, a tiny but consequential species, which is on the brink of extinction after a recent survey turned up only six fish, is the only player in the state’s water wars that may soon give up its stake. For years, its status as an endangered species has helped to all but kill a number of extensive water infrastructure projects that would further alter its native Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, which is now set for a far less ambitious habitat restoration project than environmentalists had hoped for.

California's Central Valley and the California Aqueduct. (Photo: Rolf Schulten/Getty Images)

Take trees: After a century of fire repression in the Sierra Nevada, where the snowpack accounts for as much as 80 percent of California’s water in a normal year, the forests are unnaturally dense. More trees means more roots sucking up more water as it flushes down from the granite peaks each spring. According to Roger Bales, a hydrologist at the University of California, Merced, between half a million and a million more acre-feet of water would run down from the Sierras if there were half as many trees—or, rather, if forest growth was allowed to be kept in check by routine, small, natural wildfires, as they were before people started putting their homes in the path of those same fires. Between 1990 and 2008, nearly 60 percent of the homes built in the United States, according to the environmental group EcoWest, were built in what’s called the Wilderness-Urban Interface—the gray zone between wild lands and developed municipalities—potentially putting them in the path of future wildfires.

In the last century, California’s population has spiked from 3 million people to nearly 39 million; a million acre-feet of water is enough to supply 2 million households for a year. So even thinning our forests won’t get the state all the water it needs.

Is farming without water—returning to a gold rush–era approach to agriculture—the solution? “I don’t know if I would suggest this type of farming to anyone,” Cirone said. Because if you’re in a place like the San Joaquin Valley, where four inches of rain constitutes a wet year, it just isn’t going to work. Stone fruit doesn’t like it that dry. “This is a real drought—it has a lot of real implications beyond our little farming dreams,” he said.

Just as there are troubling implications for the state and the national food supply, there are real solutions too—if not for the actual lack of rain, then for using what water there is more conservatively. They run together like a litany, a secular prayer for rain: reservoirs, dams, drip irrigation, microsprinklers, soil moisture monitoring, desalination, low-flow appliances, variable flush toilets, rain barrels, shorter showers, groundwater recharge, drought-tolerant rootstock, cover crops, wastewater recycling, big data, intensification, stormwater capture, no-till farming, double-cropping, composting, mulching, gray water—and, perhaps, the end of agriculture.

“It’s totally possible that there’s too much agricultural land,” Dave Runsten, policy director at the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, said. “And there needs to be less of it.”

If dry farming is at one extreme of the myriad potential solutions to the West’s water woes, then this, perhaps, is at the other. Some have called it a “managed retreat”: giving up on the driest, saltiest, most precarious farmland. “I think if we don’t have any water,” Runsten continued, “we’ll take the land out of production and make it wildlife habitat.”

Food is water incarnate. That’s what it is. You’re shipping water around when you’re shipping food around.

Dave Runsten, Community Alliance With Family Farmers

The organization that Runsten works for runs the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative, a clearinghouse for information on water conservation practices ranging from using cover crops for increasing soil-moisture retention to installing and maintaining a variety of targeted irrigation systems. If you’re interested in how water can be used more efficiently in agriculture, the case studies section of the organization’s website is, despite most of the information pre-dating the current drought, a fascinating rabbit hole. If California is going to figure out a way to drastically reduce the amount of water it uses on its farms, you can find the people who are already working on ways to do so listed here.

What you won’t find is someone who is currently working solely on water conservation issues. In the fourth year of what’s been called the worst drought in 1,200 years, the full-time staff stands at zero.

“We just can’t find anyone who wants to fund this kind of work on water stuff,” Runsten said. “It’s really quite remarkable.”

You’ll hear a version of that from just about everyone who works on water issues in California, that there’s a sort of inertia tied to the hope that a wet winter is just an El Niño away. Instead of solving the problem—by funding a staff or overhauling the archaic water rights system—we just have to wait for the inevitable return of the rain.

The drought can’t last forever, but farmers are still trying to find ways to outlast any dry spell. Almond growers have reduced their water usage by more than a third over the past 20 years. Irrigation is so targeted on some orchards that the grass or other cover usually used between rows simply won’t grow anymore, as the water doesn’t stray from the trunks of the trees. Some dairy ranchers are experimenting with dry- and hot-weather-loving sorghum as an alternative to corn silage for feed. The grain can’t be farmed without irrigation altogether, but it can be grown with a third to a half as much water (and less fertilizer) without sacrificing yields. Researchers at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources are studying blueberries to figure out the least amount of irrigation that can be used to produce a profitable crop, and stone-fruit farmer Mas Masumoto is growing flavorful “petit” peaches that have received between 30 to 50 percent less water.

But if growing a peach with less water could help bring down a viral gallons-per-fruit statistic, that’s a fix that doesn’t extend past the farm. Just as the forests in the Sierras help determine how California operates as a water system, so do the increasingly dry aquifers that lie below.

Reservoirs may be at historic lows, but by design they will fill back up when wet weather returns. The same can’t be said for groundwater reserves, which rely on water trickling down through soil and rock, replenishing at a far slower rate. According to a NASA study, California is at an 11-trillion-gallon groundwater deficit, and those subterranean reservoirs are being depleted at a rate of 4 trillion gallons annually—more than is used for urban purposes in the state every year.

With farmers applying less water thanks to conservation efforts, “they’ll be recharging less groundwater,” Runsten explained, “which means that we’ll have to do that consciously.” That may mean selectively flooding fields with surface water during the winter or in wet years, allowing more to filter down into the underground reservoirs. Such “inefficiency” in irrigation is a key means of increasing groundwater stores.

But there’s no viral stat for replenishing aquifers. A single almond takes a gallon of water to grow, and that is that.

“Food is water incarnate,” Runsten said. “That’s what it is. You’re shipping water around when you’re shipping food around.”

Unlike last year’s weak warming trend in Pacific temperatures, which failed to bring the El Niño rains California so desperately needs, this winter could potentially be a very, very wet one. A June report from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology found that water in the central and eastern stretches of the tropical Pacific have been 1 degree Celsius warmer than average for six straight weeks—conditions that echo the lead-up to the historically wet (and destructive) California winter of 1997–98. In six months, the state could potentially be facing the kind of storms that dumped more than 17 inches of rain on parts of Texas in May.

But up in See Canyon, Mike Cirone isn’t betting on the weather. This spring, he did something that he’s never done in nearly three decades of farming, including during the last bad drought in the late 1980s. Some of the apricot trees grown on rockier soils haven’t coped as well with the drought and are showing signs of stress.

“We’ve rolled drip out on them,” he said, “and we’ll probably irrigate them after we harvest.”