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Climate Change in the San Joaquin Valley and Our Future Food Supply

Leon Kaye | Wednesday April 17th, 2013 | 2 Comments
San Joaquin Valley, Climate Change, Fresno, Fresno State, Central Valley, agriculture, farming, pistachios, Fresno State

Pistachios budding at a farm on Fresno State’s campus (Leon Kaye)

The San Joaquin Valley is North America’s most valuable farming region. The area’s crops such as carrots and tomatoes are part of large companies’ supply chains. High-value crops such as stone fruit, pistachios, almonds, table grapes and pomegranates are shipped across the United States, Canada and overseas. And while this basin between the Sierra Nevada mountains and Coastal Ranges is a bastion of agribusiness, the area is awash with many family-owned farms–many of which grow the “local produce” Bay Area and southern California residents score at weekend farmers’ markets.

But climate change is already having its impact on the San Joaquin Valley (the southern half of the Central Valley), and future threats of worsening water scarcity, wildfires and widening insect vectors threaten not only the area’s already wobbly economy, but the national food supply. To that end, on Monday the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) hosted a forum at Fresno State to discuss the latest climate impacts on the Valley. Four speakers shared ideas about what, if anything, could be done. And with the area’s population still growing, concerns over water and energy pose additional challenges.

Fresno State Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Science, Peter Van de Water, reminded the audience that climate change is already here. The early stages are evident: a reduced snowpack in the Sierras, the resulting decreased snow runoff and warmer temperatures are documented. But climate change is not just about increased temperatures during the summer months. “Low temperatures are warming,” Dr. Van de Water said, and the results that should concern farmers show that daily low temperatures are actually warming. And, considering that one reason why the Central Valley’s is the world’s most fertile region outside the Nile River basin is because of the wide range between daily high and low temperatures–and the benefits for many crops–a changing temperature pattern could cause long-term harm for the sector that is the basis of this region’s economy. So climate change adaption needs to start now.

Speaking of water, Roger Bales of UC Merced said the region will have to increase its water security on the foundation of three “I’s”: Infrastructure, Institutions and Information. “Soft options” addressing water consumption such as rainwater capture and conservation will not be enough to address the valley’s water challenges. With depleted groundwater supplies, storage strategies, or “hard options” such as groundwater storage or additional reservoirs will have to be put on the table. Obviously agriculture business and governments will have to cooperate; not that such collaboration has proved easy in recent years. But technology will have to play a role as the region balances increased global demand for food with tighter water supplies–such as sensors offering real-time information about water quality and supplies.

Getting farmers and ranchers on board will not be easy. Organizations such as the Family Farm Alliance, however, is one group bridging the gaps between farmers and other stakeholders in the region. According to Family Farm Alliance’s Dan Keppen, farmers are feeling climate change’s effects in the region. Already confronting a 25 percent cut in their water allocation, farmers are facing volatile runoff patterns because there is more rain but less snow. And, in addition to population growth, there will be the potential for even more competition for water because of the local oil and gas industry.

When it comes to energy, smarter use of electricity in urban areas could be a boost in the region. Fresno, the state’s 5th biggest city (34th in the U.S.) has long been dogged as a town ruled by developers and undermined by corrupt civic officials. As a result, the 112-square mile city is, for the most part, a sprawling mess of huge homes. But the City of Fresno’s Sustainability Manager, Joseph Oldham, noted if 30 percent of those homes completed an energy retrofit, the city’s residents could save on its $866 million annual energy bill. And while the average Los Angeles resident uses 150 gallons of water for personal use, Fresnans gorge on about 260 gallons daily–60 to 70 percent of that for landscaping. Water efficiency? Well, the city only installed water meters only a few years ago. And it is time for the city to stop expanding at the cost of valuable farmland.

If the San Joaquin Valley is to have a thriving future, the smarter use of resources such as water–which is already underway–will have to accelerate. Half a world away, Israel has positioned itself as the Silicon Valley of water technology, an idea with its origins in the country’s founding after World War II. It’s time for this region to think of itself in the same way to confront these long-term issues that will not disappear–and build a more diverse economy that in the end will provide jobs. Because without more efficient use of water, there is no way this region can continue to feed the world.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. At Better4Business in Anaheim on May 2, he will join a panel discussing how companies can present their CSR initiatives to the media. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]


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  1. April 18, 2013 at 1:39 am PDT | jfreed27 writes:

    With business as usual, Calif is “on track” for an 80% reduction in snow pack; our children will see reductions on this order.

    Simple solutions, such as a carbon fee and dividend (even when 100% of fees are returned to taxpayer to fully compensate for higher energy prices) are adamantly opposed by the GOP in Congress and Senate. As loyal “fossil tools” they do the bidding of Big Oil and Coal.

    The once Grand Old Party could do with a makeover.

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  2. April 18, 2013 at 13:37 pm PDT | Gina-Marie Cheeseman writes:

    As an at least seventh generation resident of Fresno County, the impact that climate change will have on the region scares the crap out of me. However, I have faith that if farmers are educated about the issue, they will do what is necessary to use water more efficiently. I have to believe in San Joaquin Valley farmers because I come from a long line of them, and I know how tough and smart they really are. When my Armenian great-grandfather, who was in the group of the first Armenians to come to Fresno, came to this region, he was horrified by how dry and dusty is is here. At that time, tumbleweeds outnumbered people. However, he stayed and helped develop the area’s raisin industry. He learned to adapt. Farmers today will learn to adapt, just as he did. It’s simply in their blood to do so.

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