Farming on empty
Californians are taking shorter showers, rip out the front lawn to plant cacti while in the nearby mountains numerous forest fires feed on tinder-dry brush. Leave the Pacific behind, cross the Coastal Range and you’ll get to the Central Valley. Over 700 km long, flat as a pancake, with rich soils, mild winters and an average of 300 days of sunshine, the Central Valley is the most productive and profitable agricultural region in the United States: California produces 97% of all kiwis, 95% of all celery, 89% of all spinach, consumed in the US. With roughly 1.8 million cows California is the nations biggest dairy producer. But by far the most valuable crops are nuts, pistachios, cashews, walnuts and of course almonds.
Take I5, the interstate highway that runs north-south through the Central Valley, and you see how bad the drought is: irrigation channels are empty, dust devils chase each other across dry, bare soil. Farmers have left an estimated 560,000 acres fallow because they have no water to grow anything. Between November and March weather systems moving in from Pacific bring rain to California but little of it reaches the Central Valley. In ordinary years the water used for irrigation comes from the snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, it’ s distributed through rivers and canals. Since the beginning of the drought little or no snow has fallen in the Sierras, this spring the snow cover was 95% below average.
California’s second water source is the Colorado River Basin on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. Seven western states depend on the Colorado River’s water stored in artificial reservoirs like Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam. But the drought has caused water levels all along the Colorado to fall to record lows, too.
And yet there are farmers in California’s Central Valley who seem to be exempt from the drought. They not only water existing crops, they are planting millions more of super thirsty nut trees - according to US ag journalist Tom Philpott an almond orchard requires about a third more water per acre than grape vineyards. How come these farmers have water? The answer is: drill, baby drill. What oil is to Alaska, water is to California. Drilling for water has become big business in the Central Valley. Drilling companies have bought special equipment from oil and fracking companies to bore wells as deep as 700m. Accessing deep water reservoirs is expensive, but the profits that can be made with growing nuts are huge. Huge enough to make hedge funds line up to invest into California farm land. In a recent episode of the NPR podcast Planet Money* financial experts estimated that one hectare of nut trees would net a profit of about $ 25,000 (£16,000).
The California drought report by the UC Davis on August 18th says 70% of the drought water shortage in the Central Valley are being offset by groundwater. Drilling for water on your land is legal though the consequences for the neighbours can be dire: ground water levels at present are falling by 3 meters a week. In several small towns in the valley existing water supplies have already dried up. The communities lack the money to drill new, deeper wells. Those who live there rely on donations of bottled water and the communal showers facilities that have been set up*. And there are some reports that the water pumped up from deep aquifers is so saline that it is harming young trees....
So does agriculture in California have a future? A very wet winter would help and meteorologist are hopeful that the current El Nino weather system that has caused major flooding this summer in the Midwest might bring heavier than usual rainfall to California. But the aquifers will take decades of above average rainfall to fill up again. And the drought is spreading north. This year the states of the Pacific Northwest, Washington and Oregon, renowned for their temperate, wet climate, have officially been declared to be in drought. Chuck Benbrook, professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture at Washington State University says organic agriculture is best suited to mitigate drought, as well managed soil can store water for longer. And growing less thirsty crops would help too. Otherwise a move might be on the cards: Quite a few dairy farmers have already left California for greener pastures in the Midwest.
*NPR Planet Money, episode 640, 22.7.2015