Water Woes

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
November 21, 2014

Olsen Organic Farm is eagerly awaited by loyal citrus lovers each November, but you won’t see them at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market this winter. The beloved farm has no oranges or mandarins to sell.

“Right now, the trees are bare. There’s no fruit,” says farmer Ken Olsen. “I’m real sad about disappointing the friends and customers at the farmers market. It’s a part of my life.”

Olsen Organic Farm is located in Lindsay, California, about an hour southeast of Fresno, at the base of the Sierra Nevadas. When Olsen acquired the farm in 1996, he thought he’d made a wise choice buying a hillside property with a warm microclimate well-suited to growing citrus in the winter. But the land had one drawback: no aquifer, meaning no wells.

Olsen must rely on an allocation of water from the local irrigation district, an agency tasked with managing and distributing water resources through contracts with the federal government and other districts. He has always been allocated sufficient water, even in dry times. But this year, he received only 10% of his usual water supply.

Running on Empty

With California facing an extreme drought this year, the Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District was one of a number of districts that received an unprecedented 0% of its usual water allocation. As a result, growers are suing state water authorities, claiming that federal water was diverted from their districts to other projects without honoring historic water rights.

The district was able to purchase water from neighboring districts to provide a small allocation to their farmers. Scott Edwards, the district’s general manager, says that with so little water, about 20% of the citrus farms in his district are out of production.

“We should have had 25% allocation, and with our contracts with neighboring districts, we would have been okay,” says Edwards. “But nobody plans for zero.”

Head Above Water

With a fraction of his usual water supply this year—a combination of district water and water purchased at a high premium from a neighboring farmer with groundwater—Olsen has been irrigating his citrus trees just enough to keep them alive. He estimates that up to a fourth of his trees have died from water stress, though he won’t know for sure until next spring.

“I hope and pray that we’re going to have a good water year, so we can be back in business next spring with a new crop,” says Olsen. With savings and other investments to help cover his living expenses and his minimal farming costs this year, he will be able to weather this year’s financial loss, but he worries about what the future holds if predictions of a megadrought hold true.

“If we get the full amount of water next year, I’ll be in good shape,” says Olsen. “But if we don’t, and if this is the way it’s going to be from now on, I’ll just have to cut back the orchards and farm with what water I have available.”

Adapting to Drought

“It’s hard to worry too much about the drought because you have no control over it,” says Greg Massa of Massa Organics, which grows almonds, rice, and other grains and raises pigs in Hamilton City, near Chico. “We’re just going to adapt the best we can.”

Relying on water from an irrigation district for half of his fields, Massa didn’t know how much of his usual water allocation to expect earlier this year. So he changed up his usual strategy and planted rice only in the fields that had access to groundwater. In his district fields he planted crops that would require little irrigation, such as safflower, oats, and sorghum for seed and pig feed.

The Massas’ main plot wound up receiving 75% of the usual allocation, while their other plot, on Greg’s father’s farm 20 miles away in another district, received only 50%. Both are supplied by the Sacramento River, fed from Lake Shasta.

“Because of the drought, our almond yields were down 30%, and our rice yields were way off even though they had some irrigation,” says Massa. “We had to raise our prices for the first time in eight years because we have less stuff to sell.” When asked how customers have responded to the increases, Massa answers, “Most people understand once we explain what’s going on, since everybody understands the drought at this point.”

Guessing Game

With Lake Shasta currently at 23% capacity and no idea how much water the season will bring or how much the irrigation district will allocate, this winter Massa is planting wheat and other crops that can grow strictly on rainfall. Since pigs can survive on those crops and relatively little water, the Massas have shifted their focus to pork sales at markets, not knowing how much rice they’ll be able to plant next year.

While the farm does have some groundwater, the Massas need to use what little water they can get from their two irrigation wells to keep their almond trees alive and producing. “Groundwater is dropping like crazy. Shallower wells are going dry,” he says. “There are so many people putting in new wells and they’re getting deeper and bigger all the time.” Drilling a new well costs about $100,000, and the waitlist is at least a year.

“We have two deep irrigation wells, and one of them is more than 40 years old,” says Massa. “It’s still putting out good water, but I don’t want to push it and find out next August that I don’t have any more water out of that well.”

He continues, “It’s just a guessing game right now and we’re trying to conserve whatever we can and plan for no water next year.”

Olsen Organic Farm is out for the season. Massa Organics can be found on Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Friant-Kern Canal photo by Don Barrett.