San Joaquin Valley farmers find new ways to irrigate but still have water-use critics

Although they take a lot of water to maintain, nut trees are one of the most reliable crops, lasting up to 30 years. (Photo: Whitney Mountain)

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When Sharleen Robson and her family began farming in San Joaquin Valley 30 years ago, water conservation barely crossed farmers’ minds.

“When we first moved here, these country roads were often flooded because people would go to bed at night and turn their water on and forget to get up and switch the fields,” Robson said. “But you don’t see that at all anymore — not at all.”

No you don’t — not after the dawn of a new era in California agriculture, which has seen a marked difference when it comes to using water following the California Water Crisis.

The California Department of Water Resources announced March 1 that the water content from snowfall statewide was up 24 percent this year, but water still remains quite scarce. It is also terribly expensive when measured in acre-feet. So farmers are holding fast to more conservative irrigation systems developed in the years since the Robsons started their farm.

“I think farmers are much more aware today about conserving water,” said Robson, who raised her seven children on the Buchanan Hollow Nut Farm in Le Grand, Calif. After selling their stock in Intel, she and her husband moved to the San Joaquin Valley from Los Altos Hills, thinking that nut farming would be a better investment. Now, she acknowledges, “We would have been much better off with Intel.”

That may be. Although technology companies certainly have their challenges, water isn’t one of them, and they aren’t competing with every Tom, Dick, and Harry in California for access to the resources that make their businesses run.

In the 30 years since the Robsons established the Buchanan Hollow Nut Farm, water challenges have become so severe that, in 1992, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act forced many family farms to idle their crops and give up access to thousands of acre-feet of water in an effort to tighten the lid on water usage. Luckily for the Robsons, their nut farm wasn’t one of those that had to surrender water and put their crops on hold.

Such strict water restrictions prompted farmers to take matters into their own hands, and they began revolutionizing the ways they irrigate their crops. Gone were the days of overnight flooding, and here to stay were those of watering crops one drip at a time.

“When we put in orchards and vineyards, that kind of thing, everybody puts in drip irrigation because that’s the most efficient and conserves water,” said Kole Upton, a farmer and a director of the Chowchilla Water District.

Instead of the simple flood irrigation of yesteryear, which was handy when watering nut trees that require more water than almost anything else, watering systems like drip irrigation and sumps, which recycle water used in flood irrigation, provide a method of watering crops that is tailored to each plant, saving water.

But in the complex issue of California water, some people don’t see these improved irrigation systems as enough of an effort to reverse the California water crisis.

Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research institute based in Oakland, contributed a column to the Sacramento Bee March 6, responding to the release of the Public Policy Institute of California’s latest water crisis report. The institute is a non-partisan research institute for public policy in California. In it, he wrote that farmers are getting let off the hook for what he says is their over-use of the state’s water supply.

“The report’s biggest blind spot is agriculture, the state’s largest water user,” Gleick wrote. “The authors discount the vast potential for improving agricultural water-use efficiency. Why do they ignore this potential? Because they make the simplistic and false assumption, promulgated by some in the agricultural industry, that all excessive farm water use is already recaptured and reused.”

The reason they make this assumption is that California farmers started using sumps in response to the water crisis.

“For some of the crops where you still use flood irrigation what people have is what we call sumps — return systems — so that the water runs off, you pick it up, and you run it again so that you’re not losing any water per se,” said Upton, who is the largest grower of corn for Corn Nuts. “You’re going to lose some to evaporation, but it’s still the best way to make sure you’re not wasting water.”

Upton explained that using the surface water is a strategy that conserves waterbecause it preserves the water that is held in the underground aquifer. The aquifer is the only other source of water available to Upton, and it is much more sensitive to overuse.

“In this area, we’re what’s called a conjunctive-use area, and, that is, we use both surface water when it’s available and then water from the underground when it’s not,” he explained. So when “we have surface water we try to maximize our use of that so we can save our underground aquifer for the drought. It’s sort of a bank account or a reserve account, if you will.”

Farmers in the Chowchilla Water District realize the importance of saving the groundwater that lies beneath their feet. Before the revolution in irrigation, the area had an artesian aquifer, meaning that the water levels were practically bursting from the earth. But today, the aquifer is dropping anywhere between 1 1/2 feet to 6 feet per year.

Upton said that not only is this bad for the environment, but it doesn’t make sense for farmers to exploit the aquifer unless absolutely necessary. He said that when it comes to drawing from groundwater, it’s the survival of the richest.

“It’s a corollary of Darwin’s law,” Upton said. “The ones that can drill the deepest wells are going to be more likely to survive if the aquifer keeps dropping the way it is.”The deeper the water level, the more expensive it is to pump because it costs more to pull the water up to the surface.”

But Gleick denies the efficiency of these seemingly improved water techniques.

“In reality, abundant water is lost to unproductive evaporation or to other sinks where it is not recaptured,” Gleick wrote. “We simply cannot say that the full potential of agricultural water conservation and efficiency has been achieved.”

And while it may be that water use is not at its full potential, the question remains open for debate. The Public Policy Institute’s report says that, “gross agricultural water use appears to have been falling since the early 1980s due to irrigation efficiency improvements and retirement of some farmland with urbanization and accumulating soil salinity.”

The institute is not the only entity defending farmers. Ellen Hanak, director of research and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, Jay Lund, co-director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, and Brian Gray, UC Hasting College of Law professor contributed to a column for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009 in which they make the point that farmers have truly come a long way.

“Public discussions often mistakenly point to farmers as water villains. But farmers have considerably improved their water use efficiency,” they wrote. “There is usually less potential for agriculture to make more water available to others without letting land lie fallow. Statewide agricultural water use is decreasing, while urban use — with a growing population — is increasing.”

It seems like a lot of finger-pointing, which is easy to do when discussing an issue that touches every household from city condo to country cottage.

But Upton and Gleick may agree in a broader sense. They’re both motivated to conserve water. And both want to see water used wisely and ensure that the authorities are keeping an eye on how water is being used across the state.

Upton said it’s important to continue to survey the uses of the water and strive to keep water allocations at their most efficient and beneficial.

A Stanford University alumnus, Upton represented the agricultural community in a 2009 initiative to reallocate water from farming use to use in California rivers and streams in order to restore California’s salmon population.

He said that after a while, it became clear that the initiative was not actually helping to re-populate the area with salmon because water wasn’t the real issue. The issue, he said, was that the salmon’s food sources were being depleted and no amount of water was going to replenish the population.

This experience, he added, goes to show that this water crisis issue is a moving target, but at the end of the day, farmers really just want to conserve water. That is in their best interest because scarcity of resources makes prices skyrocket. But some farmers argue that cost is not the only reason they want to conserve water.

“Farmers are really environmentalists,” said Bradley Robson, Sharleen’s son who manages a large portion of the family farm. His daughter sometimes goes to the office to help her grandmother with administrative work. “We live off this land. We need it to be stable.”


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1 thought on “San Joaquin Valley farmers find new ways to irrigate but still have water-use critics”

  1. There are air to water machines now that extract the moisture from the air to produce drinkable water. The larger are generated by solar power and can produce hundreds of gallons of water a day. I wonder why the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have not turned to these machines as an option? I know they are expensive but at the height of the controversey people would have gladly donated money to help purchase the equipment that would keep them in business.

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