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Can California feed the U.S. with less water?

March 27, 2015
Marie Narlock

If you think taking shorter showers and letting your lawn turn brown is challenging, try farming during the drought.

Many of California’s farmers are watching their crops — and their livelihoods — wither and die. Harvests are significantly smaller, which means higher prices at grocery stores and restaurants, and 17,000 fewer farm jobs last year alone. One out of 10 acres has been left unplanted, resulting in a $2.2 billion hit to the economy. Fresno County, which has historically sold more produce than any county (and 23 states) in the nation, could lose up to a quarter of its orchards and fields this year.

Our precious groundwater has become harder and more expensive to tap, and the scars on the earth are pronounced: in some areas the water table has dropped 500 feet from all the wells being drilled, and the ground has dropped more than a foot as a result. Determining who gets federal water and who doesn’t in the Central Valley is mired in politics and history and environmentalism. But the overriding and indisputable problem is a persistent lack of rain.

Unfortunately, the forecast doesn’t look good either. A recent study indicates that the worst droughts in California have been when conditions were both dry and warm, and global warming is increasing the odds that dry and warm years coincide. Best guess? The future looks hot — and dry.

California produces half the fruits and vegetables eaten in the U.S., and uses 80 percent of our water to grow it. But can we keep pumping out produce at this pace? If drought is the new normal, what can farmers do to maintain their plots using less water?

It turns out some farmers are finding success using strategies already employed by experienced backyard gardeners and organic farmers. While some of these methods may seem impractical for farms that stretch out thousands of acres, circumstances may eventually force changes. In other words, conventional farmers may find that instituting sustainability measures becomes a survival strategy, not just a marketing decision. Here’s what we all can do — including farmers — to ease the effects of the drought and maintain our prominent position as America’s food stand.

Switch from overhead to drip irrigation. Spraying water instead of dripping it is a recipe for waste and weeds. Drip irrigation is more expensive to install upfront, but it can result in greater crop yields. Most important, it is hugely more water efficient.

Compost and mulch. Compost improves soil structure and increases water retention. Mulch suppresses weeds and further helps retain water. Together, they form an agricultural dynamic duo that has been relied upon by organic farmers for thousands of years.

Plant the right plant in the right place. This is a tough subject when it comes to agriculture. Why? Because some of the crops currently grown aren’t really suitable for California. Crops like cotton, almonds, corn and rice take gargantuan quantities of water to grow, and yet we persist in growing them. Perhaps in the future they will be more the exception than the rule. Similarly, our appetite for lawns will — hopefully — diminish, as more people come to understand how inappropriate they are in California’s Mediterranean climate.

Use cover crops. Grains and legumes grown in the off-season retain water and soil fertility, suppress weeds and invite good insects. No, it isn’t as easy as buying synthetic fertilizer by the barrel, but the payoff is greater yields with less water.

Hold water onsite. Just as backyard gardeners are catching on to grey water and rainwater catchment systems, farmers can rely on ponds and tanks for water storage. Of course, rain has to fall to be caught, but finding ways to store every last drop on site can actually add an attractive element while leaving the groundwater untouched and, optimally, recharged.

 

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