Farmers Brace for Drought Despite Rain

March 6, 2009

victorFor the last two years Victor Martino of Bella Viva Orchards has trekked up into his local slice of the Sierras on the last day of February to gather data for a state-wide survey of the snow pack. Last year, the group measured the snow at 30 inches deep, a  number that, when combined with the data from 150+ other locations, allowed California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) to announce what appeared to be good news. The snow pack was at 114% the normal level and things were looking good for farmers.

Then the rain stopped.  The state had one of the driest springs on record, followed by a dry fall and early winter and by the time this January rolled around, Californians began preparing for the cumulative effect of three years of drought.

Since then, the state has seen over four weeks of moderate but consistent rain, meaning that when Martino’s group went back to measure the snow and found the snow pack was at just around 20 inches — or around 80% normal, as the survey average revealed — he was allowing himself some measured optimism.

“For this year, we’re going to survive,” Martino says of his own stone fruit farm. And despite Governor Schwarzenegger’s recent declaration of a state of emergency, the farmer is still hoping for a rebound. “If it really rains in March and April, we’ll thrive. So the whole thing isn’t over yet. The next 45-60 days will tell us whether it’s going to be okay or whether we’re in severe drought.”

Snow packs are important because water is traditionally “stored” throughout the winter and spring as snow; that snow then fills creeks and rivers as it melts. As the state’s climate warms, however, the snow has also been melting faster and earlier, making the snow pack a less reliable predictor of year-round water availability. One indicator experts use to measure overall water levels is the state’s reservoirs, which are currently only at around 71% of normal. In the press release DWR released after last week’s survey, they stated: “On the heels of two critically dry years it is unlikely we will make up the deficit and be able to refill our reservoirs before winter’s end.”

drought map

For many farmers, this winter has been a roller coaster, and this last wet month has felt like a slow rise after a long, sharp drop.

Jesse Kuhn from Marin Roots Farm lost three crops this winter because of a dearth of early rain.  In January, the two ponds on his land were close to empty and he was planning to grow as much as possible in spring to use up his water early (he figured that holding it would mean losing more to evaporation) and then experiment with dry-farming. Now, Kuhn says his ponds have filled up considerably and he “won’t have to look for a new career for now.”

Warren Weber of Star Route Farm is also feeling some relief. It was looking like his Bolinas farm was going to be subject to extreme water rationing, when the county’s emergency reservoirs came dangerously close to disappearing.  But says Weber, the local creek has gone back up in recent weeks. “We were thinking we’d have to reduce the size of our acreage,” he adds. “But now we’re less concerned.”

Weber still has his eyes on the big picture. Like many farmers, he is thinking about ways to store what little rain does come down. Along with a small group of farmers who share his small watershed, Webber hopes to build ponds off a nearby stream to capture water in spring, therefore bolstering his summer growing season.

Allstar Organics’ Janet Brown also has her eye on the future. Their farm has two locations – one in Nicasio which has its own well and another in Lagunitas which relies on city water. She says that Marin Organic, the non-profit that supports Brown and other farmers in Marin, is working with their Municipal Water District to ensure that food production remains a priority, even if (or, more likely, when) water rationing occurs in Marin. 

Used to the ups and down of farming, Brown and her partner Marty Jacobson are using drip irrigation and applying “tons of compost and mulch” —  i.e. “whatever we can” to help the soil retain moisture. And they’re keeping their fingers crossed. “Right now we have water…that’s what we know,” she says.

The Central Valley, where many large farms have been hit the hardest this year, bureaucratic irrigation districts and regulated reservoirs mean that farms have less direct control over their access to water.

Ginger Balakian of Balakian Farms says the biggest shift she’s seen is the loss of access to “ditch water,” municipally sanctioned water that is delivered via drainage ditches. The Balakians now have to pump all their water from a well, which means a lot more electricity and more cost. But unlike many Central Valley farms that are scaling back production because of drought, Balakian Farms will plant a standard number of row crops this year. Despite the increased cost, Balakian says she can’t imagine charging more for her produce, as the news of families hit hard by the flagging economy worsens daily. “On top of water costs, our labor cost has gone up…but the economy is so bad so I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “I’ll put it this way: it’s a gamble.”

Related articles:

The Christian Science Monitor: “We can’t conserve our way out of this.”

The LA Times: Those who want to weaken environmental regulations invoke the drought like a mantra.

Michael Dimock and Richard Rominger say: The drought is an opportunity for the state to get our climate change act together. Before things get any worse.

Image above taken from US Drought Monitor March 3, 2009

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