California’s critical water cycle out of balance for state’s farmers


At Stanford University the fountains are not flowing. But in Central California, known as the “Food Basket of the World,” water is also not flowing and farmers are digging deep in response.

This year, California has received its lowest rainfall in recorded history. On January 17, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency.

Here on “The Farm,” springtime fountain hopping was a casualty of the drought. In the Central Valley, on real farms, livelihoods are threatened, fields are fallow and the ground is actually sinking.

For farmer Dominic Pitigliano the drought is literally tearing his world apart. This year, farmers are receiving no water from state and federal water contracts, a source that usually supplies them with about 75 percent of their supply. In order to keep their crops alive, farmers have become dependent on ground water by drilling wells.

In the past six months, Pitigliano has drilled eight new wells on his Tulare County farm, which has been in his family since the 1920s. Pitigliano says the current drought is the worst problem his farm has ever faced. When asked if he felt prepared for the crisis, he responded quickly: “Oh no.”

Pitigliano is not alone. Nothing could have prepared him and other members of the agricultural community for the worst drought in state history. No one knew that the Westlands Water District — the largest agricultural water district in the nation, which supplies water to Kings county and western Fresno County — would receive zero percent of its annual allotment.

Sarah Woolf, a member of the Westlands Board of Directors and a Fresno County landowner, said, “It’s been very difficult because we aren’t getting any surface supply from the federal government, so we have a zero allocation. Out of that 1.19 million acre-feet we are getting zero.”

In order to continue supplying the Central Valley with water, Woolf said the water district has had to look elsewhere. “We buy water wherever we can, but we have a demand of about 500,000 acre-feet of water that we really need to sustain some viability in the district and we are getting zero,” said Woolf.

Woolf only expects to acquire 100,000 acre-feet of water from private vendors, one-fifth of what Westlands needs to sustain farmers in the Valley. In the private market, water is selling for $1,200 an acre-foot; it should only cost $60. Everything else will be taken from the ground.

Pitigliano described the wells: “It’s like a big straw in the ground. It’s about a thousand feet deep.” Although farmers are throwing money into them and wishing for water, these wells look nothing like the wishing wells typical of childhood fairytales.

Farmers, desperate for water, are clamoring to get the opportunity to stick these “big straws” into the ground. Pitigliano said: “We are having people from Nevada coming in and drilling wells. You have to beg people to drill a well right now because they are so short in supply.”

According to Pitigliano, wells used to cost about $50,000. Now they cost about half of a million. That isn’t cheap, especially since wells are not only ten times the price, recently they haven’t been lasting very long — often not long enough for farmers to make a profit off of their half-million investment.

“Wells that used to last for 50 years now only last six years. If people keep drilling wells at the rate we are, I worry that we might run out of water below us,” said Pitigliano.

He is not the only person with this concern. Woolf said, “I think it’s a really big concern because we are using groundwater faster than we are replenishing it.”

According to Woolf, the overuse of groundwater was one of the primary reasons that the federal government decided to institute the Westlands Water District in 1952.

“… We were using so much groundwater that the land was actually sinking,” Woolf said, “When you start extracting water out of the soil there’s space in between that soil and when the water leaves too rapidly the soil actually collapses.”

Now, more than 50 years after its institution, the district is no longer receiving water from its contract and farmers already have had to start depleting groundwater storages. The ground, once again, is sinking. Pitigliano has experienced this phenomenon, called subsidence, on his farm. Roads are sinking, making it difficult to navigate. Pitigliano explained, “When there is no water to hold up the soil, it collapses.”

Until things change, farmers will have no choice but to continue to rely on well water. The groundwater will continue to diminish. Land will sink.

Past crises served as motivation for California legislators to take action. Woolf said, “I think that anytime there’s this kind of stress to all segments of the population it forces change in our government. We don’t really get a lot done in our government unless there’s a crisis.”

She expects some sort of groundwater regulation by the end of the year. This will help save the environment but farmers might be hurt by this legislation. Without contract water and with regulations put on their access to groundwater, they will be left with few options and Central Valley farming will cease to exist in its current form.

Water has been a subject of political debate in California for a long time. Recently conflict with environmental groups has been a major source of regulation in the agricultural world. Surface water access has been reduced because of a series of environmental concerns, including a small fish called the Delta smelt that gets sucked into pumps in the San Joaquin Delta.

Woolf feels that the only way farmers can survive the drought is to reach a balance with environmental reform, which she feels is too “all-or-nothing.” Woolf suggests that in times of crisis, water should be guaranteed to farmers regardless of environmental impact.

Both Pitigliano and Woolf agree that in order for change to be made however, people from all over California, not only the Valley, should enter into the discussion on the drought. The crisis must be acknowledged, it must be felt not only by the Valley, but by L.A. and the Bay as well.

Here at Stanford, students haven’t yet felt the drought’s full effects. Conor Cuse, a freshman who won a drought awareness film contest for his short film, “The Legend of Hydro Warrior,” said, “It’s hard to be overly concerned with water consumption when you know that every day you’re going to be able to go into the bathroom and use as much water as you want. You don’t really see the effects of the drought anywhere besides the fountains not being full.”

It seems as if California isn’t ready to rally yet, but Pitigliano thinks that as the drought continues, so will empathy: “Stuff like that, it sometimes helps the industry instead of hurting it,” he said.

Homepage image courtesy of Flickr/Tyler Bell. Story image courtesy of Getty Images embed.

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