It is one of the richest farmlands in America. But what is it without water?
ORDBEND, Calif .– In America’s basket of fruit and nuts, water is now the most precious crop of all.
This explains why, in the midst of a historic drought drying out much of the American West, a producer of premium sushi rice concluded that it made more business sense to sell the water than it did. would have used to cultivate rice than to cultivate rice. Or why a melon farmer left a third of his fields fallow. Or why a large landowner further south is considering planting a solar panel on his fields rather than the thirsty almonds that have yielded consistent profits for years.
“You want to sit down and say, ‘We want to monetize water? “No, we don’t,” said Seth Fiack, a rice farmer here in Ordbend, on the banks of the Sacramento River, who this year has hardly planted any rice and instead sold his unused water to farmers. desperate further south. “It’s not what we prefer to do, but it’s what we need, we have to do it.”
These are among the signs of a huge up-and-down transformation of California’s Central Valley, the country’s most lucrative agricultural belt, as it faces both exceptional drought and the aftermath of years of pumping far too much water from its aquifers. Statewide, reservoir levels are dropping and power grids are at risk if hydroelectric dams do not receive enough water to generate electricity.
Climate change accentuates scarcity. Rising temperatures are drying out the soil, which can make heat waves worse. This week, temperatures in parts of California and the Pacific Northwest have broken records.
By 2040, the San Joaquin Valley is expected to lose at least 535,000 acres of agricultural production. This is more than a tenth of the cultivated area.
And if the drought persists and no new water can be found, nearly double that amount of land is expected to become unused, with potentially disastrous consequences for the country’s food supply. California’s $ 50 billion agricultural sector supplies two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and more than a third of America’s vegetables – the tomatoes, pistachios, grapes and strawberries that line grocery store shelves a coast to coast.
Glimpses of that future are now evident. Large tracts of land lie fallow because there is no water. New calculations are made on what crops to grow, how much, where. Millions of dollars are spent to replenish the aquifer that has been depleted for so long.
“Anytime we have a drought, you get a little glimpse of what will happen more frequently in our climate future,” said Morgan Levy, professor of water science and policy at the University of California at San. Diego.
For rice farmers, a delicate decision
California’s fertile central valley begins in the north, where the water begins. Normally, winter rains and spring snowmelt swell the Sacramento River, feeding one of the country’s most important rice belts. On average, producers around the Sacramento River produce 500,000 acres of medium-grain sticky rice essential for sushi. Some 40 percent is exported to Asia.
But these are not normal times. There is less snow accumulation and, this year, far less water in the reservoirs and rivers that ultimately irrigate fields, provide spawning grounds for fish, and provide drinking water to 39 million Californians.
This crisis presents rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley, which forms the northern part of the Central Valley, with a delicate choice: should they plant rice with the water they have, or save themselves the toil and stress and sell. their water instead?
Mr. Fiack, a second generation rice farmer, has chosen to sell almost all of it.
Her lone 30-acre rice field glistens green in the June sun, drinking water from a wide-mouthed faucet. His remaining 500 acres are bare and brown. What water he allegedly used to grow rice he sold to thirsty crop farmers hundreds of kilometers to the south, where water is even more scarce.
At $ 575 per acre-foot (an acre’s volume of water, a foot deep), the income compares favorably to what he would have made growing rice – without the headaches. It makes “economic sense,” Fiack said categorically.
Rice is a lot less lucrative than, say, almonds and walnuts, which is why Mr. Fiack’s fields are surrounded by nut trees and even he is dabbling in nuts. But rice farmers are particularly advantaged. Because their land has been in production for so long, they tend to rely on the water that comes out of the Sacramento River first, before it is channeled through canals and tunnels to the south.
Also, unlike fruit and nut tree owners, whose investments would wilt in a matter of weeks without water, rice farmers can leave a field fallow for a year, or even two. In an age of climate change, where water can be unreliable, this flexibility is a plus. Rice water transfers have been an important part of California’s drought adaptation strategy.
This year, rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley will produce about 20 percent less rice.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about this.
Kim Gallagher, a third generation rice farmer, left only 15 percent of her fields fallow. She is worried about the effect on rice mills and sprayer pilots who make a living from rice cultivation, not to mention the birds that come to winter in the flooded fields. “These are tradeoffs that every farmer has to make, what he can fallow and what he cannot do,” she said. “Everyone has a different number.
Fourth-generation rice farmer Fritz Durst is concerned that California rice buyers will see his region as an unreliable supplier.
He also hedged his bets. He grows rice on about 60 percent of his 527 acres, which allows him to sell the water from the Sacramento River that he would have used for the rest.
But there is a long-term risk, he says, in selling too much water, too often. “You also have people here who fear that we are setting a dangerous precedent, ”he said. “If we start letting our water flow south of the delta, these people will say, ‘Well, you don’t need this water. It’s up to us now.
Fish against field
Federico Barajas is in the unenviable position of having to find water. As director of the San Luis and the Delta-Mendota Water Authority, he negotiated a purchase agreement with river basin districts like Mr. Durst’s.
There’s just one problem: Because the rivers are so hot and dry this year, the federal government, which manages the Shasta Dam, where the cold water from the Sacramento River is stored, has said the water must stay. in the reservoir during the summer months for another food source: fish that hatch in the rivers of California.
He does not accept defeat. “We’re always looking for someone who has a drop of water that we can buy and transfer,” he said.
Nearby, off Interstate 5, Joe Del Bosque was counting on this northern rice water. This is how he survived the droughts of the past, he said. “This is the worst year we have had,” said Del Bosque.
Mr. Del Bosque grew up working on melon farms with his farm worker father. Today, Mr. Del Bosque owns a melon farm near the town of Firebaugh. He grows organic cantaloupe and watermelon on most of his 2,000 acres, destined for supermarket shelves nationwide. The license plate of his GMC truck reads “MELONS”.
This year he left a third of his land fallow. There is simply not enough water. He had also planted asparagus in a few fields, only to pull them up. A neighbor took out his almonds.
History shaped by water
The hot, dry San Joaquin Valley became cotton farms around the turn of the 20th century, when water flowed from the north through fields of alfalfa, then strawberries and grapes. Almonds took over as prices skyrocketed. And with more and more demands on surface water flowing through the river – to maintain river flows, for example, or to drive seawater out of the California Delta – farmers have increasingly turned turned towards the water under their land.
It provides 40 percent of the water for California agriculture in normal years, and much more in dry years. In parts of the state, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley at the southern end of the Central Valley, more groundwater is being withdrawn than nature can replenish.
Now, for the first time, under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, producers in parts of the San Joaquin Valley are facing restrictions on how much water they can. pump. It will transform the landscape. If you can’t pump that much water from the basement, you just can’t farm that much land in the San Joaquin Valley.
“There’s just no getting around it, ”said Eric Limas, the son of farmers who now runs one of the most depleted irrigated districts called Pixley, a checkerboard of almond orchards and dairies. . “The numbers just don’t add up.”
The aquifers are so depleted that farmers are now investing millions of dollars to put water back into the soil. They buy land that can absorb the rains. They create ponds and ditches, carving up the landscape, again, to restore groundwater that has been wasted for so long.
“This is the biggest adaptation of the water system we can do – getting more water into the ground,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the water policy center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
Meanwhile, towns in the Central Valley are starting to run out of municipal water, including Teviston, just south of Mr Limas’ office, where city officials have been delivering bottled water to 1,200 residents for nearly two weeks.
From almond trees to solar panels
Stuart Woolf embodies the changing landscape of the San Joaquin Valley.
Mr Woolf took over his father’s farm, headquartered in Huron, in 1986, removed most of the cotton his father grew, switched to tomatoes, bought a factory that turns his tomatoes into tomato paste for the ketchup. Its operations spanned 25,000 acres. Its highest value crop: almonds.
Mr. Woolf now sees the next change coming. Northern rice water will not come when it needs it. Restrictions on groundwater will soon limit its ability to pump.
He pulled up 400 acres of almonds. It is not safe to replant them anytime soon. In the coming years, he estimates that he will stop cultivating 30 to 40 percent of his land.
He left a bare field to serve as a pond to recharge the aquifer, bought land in the north, where the water is, near Mr. Fiack’s rice fields. Now he plans to replace some of his crops with another source of income: a solar farm, from which he can harvest energy to sell back to the grid.
“Listen, I’m a farmer in California. The tools we have to deal with drought are becoming limited, ”he said. “I have to fallow a lot of my ranch.