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Drought, California Agriculture and Water Efficiency: Why Farmers Must Adapt

GinaMarie headshotWords by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Energy & Environment

The entire state of California is in a drought. A big part of the state, including the fertile Central Valley, is experiencing the worst category of drought, exceptional. California supplies much of the fruits, vegetables and nuts the nation eats. In inland areas such as the Central Valley, as well as the combined Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, agriculture truly rules.

While people in Southern California and the Bay Area are largely insulated from the effects of the drought, people in the Central Valley are being hit hard. Some wells in the town of Easton, the small farming community in Fresno County where I was raised, are going dry; and two businesses have closed as a result. Meanwhile, farmers are resorting to over-pumping groundwater. They have no choice. They want to survive. America wants to eat.

Agriculture takes up 80 percent of the state’s water supply. Some crops need more water than others. Tree crops, for example, need more water than vineyards. Almonds are one tree crop that is experiencing great growth, fueled in part by studies that show the health benefits of eating almonds and past drops in the price of raisins. As a result, almonds are California’s largest export; state farmers grow 80 percent of the world’s supply, and 99 percent of all almonds grown in the U.S. hail from California. However, the drought is certain to affect the almond industry. As an opinion piece by Market Watch points out, “This unprecedented drought threatens to slam the brakes on one of the state’s fastest-growing crops and biggest moneymakers.” When the 2014-2015 crop goes to market next year, consumers will certainly be hit with higher almond prices.

Drought, water efficiency and California agriculture

The California drought highlights the need for more efficient uses of water by the agricultural sector, including the almond industry. No one knows when this drought will end, but even when it does, Californians, and farmers in particular, must remember that California is prone to droughts. Another drought will come along. The key for the survival of California agriculture is for farmers to adapt. Developing ways to more efficiently use water will enable farmers to effectively cope with water shortages.

Water efficiency in the Central Valley is particularly needed for the very survival of the industry that put the place on the map. Without agriculture, the two-thirds of the state that make up the Central Valley would be the desert backwater it was when my great-grandfather came here from Armenia. According to the family story, when the train stopped in Fresno, my grandfather and the other Armenians on the train didn’t want to get off. They were quite shocked by the barrenness of the land. Irrigation water has turned this desert into fertile farmland.

During the past couple of decades, California farmers have already made strides toward becoming more water efficient. In 1990, more than two-thirds of the crops in California were flood irrigated, according to the Pacific Institute, a notoriously water-inefficient practice. But by 2010, only 43 percent were flood irrigated. From 1990 to 2010, the amount of California land irrigated with micro-sprinklers and drip irrigation increased from 15 to 38 percent. Gone are the days of my childhood when a kid could float on an inner-tube down a vine-row flooded with irrigation water. And that is good news. It proves that farmers have the ability to adapt.

Image: Author's own

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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