Soil and water

Conservation Ethics Help Monterey Bay Farmers Thrive During Drought – Silicon Valley

Even as desperately needed rains continue to flood California, farmers in the Central Valley are still in shock to see their water supplies drastically reduced when the drought intensified last spring. Many farmers have been forced to pull up crops that can no longer be irrigated. Some have doubled or tripled their groundwater pumping as wells are drying up before their eyes.

In the Monterey Bay area, however, crops reach for the sun with thirst-quenched leaves. Well levels do not trigger any alarms and the threat of loss of water supply has largely diminished.

“I don’t know of anyone who has water issues right now,” said Joe Schirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Produce, a 40-acre organic farm in Watsonville.

Motivated by the need to prevent seawater from seeping into the region’s aquifers, the Monterey Bay Water Agencies and both small farms and large agribusinesses have been aggressively protect watersheds from saltwater intrusions for a quarter of a century. Expensive water recycling projects have enabled farmers to reduce their dependence on groundwater, as conservation-conscious cultivation practices and innovative irrigation techniques reduce water wastage.

“We know how important (water) is and that’s why we’ve been so proactive in moving forward and managing the resource,” said Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens, a family farm in the valley. from Pajaro who cultivates a wide range of organic vegetables.

Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens, a family farm in the Pajaro Valley that grows a wide range of organic vegetables, is seen in the fields in March 2016

During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the threat of saltwater intrusion hung over farmers like a lingering shadow. They knew that if aquifer levels dropped below sea level, ocean water would continue to seep into their wells and eventually destroy them.

Horror stories began to emerge in the 90s. Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville saw fields of artichokes and strawberries wither when seawater flooded their wells. But significant improvements to the local sewage treatment plant have made the highly treated effluent safe for crops in the northern part of the Salinas Valley. The saltwater intrusion has slowed down and crops have resumed.

Several years later, the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency worked with the City of Watsonville to build a wastewater recycling plant which in 2009 began providing reclaimed water to coastal farmers to raise levels. water from the open aquifer in the valley.

Two years ago, a state-of-the-art water treatment facility just north of Marina began sending potable water through an 8-mile pipeline that is now being injected into wells at Seaside. And last year, customers on the Monterey Peninsula began drinking recycled water from their faucets after mixing it with existing groundwater.

In northern Santa Cruz County, the Soquel Creek Water District and the City of Santa Cruz have joined forces on a $ 90 million project that will pump highly treated sewage and other sewage through three wells at by 2025.

Knowing that their livelihood depends on a fragile and finite source, farmers in Monterey Bay have also practiced conservation wherever possible.

“They’ve been through lots of droughts and learned to keep their farms going,” said Brendt Haddad, professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz and an expert in water management.

The farmers of Monterey Bay have also conserved their precious resource by radically changing the way they water their crops.

Instead of flooding a crop several times a season – a common practice in the Central Valley – an overwhelming majority of local farms now use drip irrigation. The technique delivers a drink directly to the plants through a drip line, placed at or just above a root system.

Peixoto believes that the amount of water used to flood a single crop just once can feed a drip irrigated crop from seed to harvest.

A handful of local farmers barely irrigate. It sounds amazing, but it is possible to grow crops like tomatoes and winter squash on some coastal farms thanks to the high moisture content of the air and soil. Called “dry farming,” the technique requires only one or two initial waterings to help plants establish before the water supply is cut off.

Dry farmers say a high dose Mulch helps retain enough soil moisture to support crops during the growing season. The technique not only saves water in the fields, but can also improve the taste of crops.

Dirty Girl’s Schirmer says if you bite into a dry-grown tomato, you’ll find it sweeter and much tastier. Ten of Dirty Girl’s 40 acres are reserved for dry-grown tomatoes, and he hasn’t watered them since June.

Many farmers in Monterey Bay now rotate their crops regularly and give plots free time between plantings to prolong soil health.

“We maintain a high level of organic matter in our soil because it retains more moisture,” said Tom Broz, owner of Live Earth Farm in Corralitos. “There is less need for irrigation. It’s like a sponge.

UCSC Haddad says that one of the main reasons small and agricultural businesses on the central coast have enthusiastically embraced water conservation and recycling is simple economics.

“If the farmers saw their wells turn into salt water, then the banks would assume these farms are going to go bankrupt,” and would not lend them money, Haddad said. “So sustainable water contributes to the long-term financial viability of farms. “

By using plants adapted to the climate, according to Haddad and other water management experts, farms on the central coast have helped them avoid the unforgiving consequences of an extreme drought.

Although the climate of the Monterey Bay area allows for growing just about anything under the sun, farmers here are starting conservation from scratch by growing drought tolerant grape varieties.

Unlike the Central Valley, almond orchards that require abundant watering do not appear in the Monterey Bay area. Instead, many farmers are focusing on crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower with relatively low water requirements.

Broz, who sits on the board of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, typically leaves areas of his 60-acre farm fallow because they aren’t productive enough to warrant irrigation. And he says he prefers to sow cover crops plants such as buckwheat or clover that are left to cover the ground instead of being harvested to support the ecosystem of his farm. Likewise, farmers often remove acreage during the drier months to concentrate their watering efforts on plots better suited to weather conditions.

Despite the sustained efforts of local farmers and water managers, maintaining the level of river basins at a healthy level remains a difficult task.

Few of the region’s wells have dried up in recent years. But as the effects of climate change continue to grow, so do the uncertainties associated with agriculture. Extreme heat, reduced precipitation, and wildfires all promise to become permanent features throughout the Golden State.

However, most local farmers seem optimistic. They say they would like to reverse – and not just stop – the discovery of aquifers. And water management experts such as Haddad say central coast farmers are well positioned to persevere through constant innovation.

Broz says that when farmers adapt, they need to support each other and not let a gap form.

“Farmers are almost like an endangered species,” Broz said. “It is important not to pit one type of farmer against another. We have to look at the system as a whole and work together towards something that we can aim for. “

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