Despite record rains in October, 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. The levels of the wells do not trigger any alarms and the threat of loss of water supply has largely diminished.
âI don’t know of anyone who’s having water issues right now,â 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 area aquifers, Monterey Bay water agencies and farms large and small 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 advanced irrigation techniques reduce water wastage.
âWe know how important (water) is and that’s why we’ve been so proactive in moving forward and managing the resource,â said Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens, a family farm in the valley. from Pajaro who cultivates a wide range of organic vegetables.
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the threat of saltwater intrusion hung over central coast farmers like a lingering shadow. They knew that if they allowed aquifer levels to drop below sea level, ocean water would continue to seep into their wells and eventually destroy them.
Horror stories began to emerge in the 90s. A producer, Ocean Mist Farms of Castroville, saw his fields of artichokes and strawberries wither when seawater flooded the wells. But major improvements to the local sewage treatment plant made the highly treated effluent safe for crops. The saltwater intrusion has slowed down and crops have resumed.
Sean Pezzini, a fourth generation artichoke grower at Pezzini Farms in Castroville, said growers in northern Monterey County remain vigilant against the saltwater invasion. But, he said, artichoke growers have little to complain about water these days.
Despite the drought, last spring’s artichoke harvest was “fantastic, and the plants look pretty healthy for this fall,” Pezzini said.
Since the revolutionary use of water collected from crops in the northern part of the Salinas Valley two decades ago, the movement to raise aquifer water levels has spread throughout the county.
Two years ago, a state-of-the-art, $ 124 million water treatment facility just north of Marina began sending potable water through an 8-mile-long pipeline that is now injected into wells at Seaside. And last year, customers on the Monterey Peninsula began drinking recycled water from their taps after mixing it with existing groundwater.
Water management experts point out that farmers in the Central Valley are heavily dependent on massive federal and state water supply projects, while farmers in Monterey County have to make do with what nature provides them. But the lack of an outside water source has fostered innovation and a deep commitment to conservation among Central Coast farmers.
âFor more than 20 years, they have been the first to adopt drip irrigation, soil moisture sensors and other data-driven approaches to agricultural water management in an attempt to minimize soil evaporation and other water uses that do not directly benefit the crop, âsaid Forrest Melton, senior scientist at NASA Ames, who is also executive director of the Agricultural Center for Education and research at CSU Monterey Bay.
âOne thing a lot of people aren’t aware of is that we don’t have water imported here. Our supply is here on the coast, âsaid Michael Cahn, irrigation and water resources advisor in the Monterey County office of the University of California Cooperative Extension. “We therefore need careful management so as not to pump too hard” and allow more seawater to invade the wells of the Salinas valley.
Farmers on the central coast do not regularly flood crops several times a season, a common practice in the central valley. Instead, most local farms now use drip irrigation. The technique delivers a drink directly to the plants via 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 incredible, but it is possible to grow crops like tomatoes and winter squash on some coastal farms thanks to the high moisture content in 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 heavy dose of mulch helps retain enough moisture in the soil to support crops throughout 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 your teeth into a dry-grown tomato, you’ll find it sweeter and a lot 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.
âWe maintain a high level of organic matter in our soil because it retains more moisture,â said Tom Broz, owner of Live Earth Farm in Corralitos. âThere is less need for irrigation. It’s like a sponge.
Brendt Haddad, professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz and expert in water management, explains that one of the main reasons why small and agricultural businesses on the central coast have enthusiastically embraced conservation and recycling water is a simple saving.
âIf the farmers saw their wells turn into salt water, then the banks would assume these farms are going to go bankrupt,â and would not lend them money, Haddad said. âSo 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.
While the climate of the Monterey Bay area makes it possible to grow just about anything in the sun, farmers here are starting conservation from scratch by growing drought tolerant grapes.
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 like buckwheat or clover that are left to cover the ground instead of being harvested – to support his farm’s ecosystem. 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 – not just stop – the overuse of aquifers. And water management experts 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.
âFarmers are almost like an endangered species,â Broz said. âIt 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. “