High and dry on the California farm
At lunchtime in California’s San Joaquin Valley, farmers meet up at Jack’s Prime Time Restaurant, where they can get a good, honest meal … just what one expects from an establishment smack dab in the middle of the most productive farming region in the world.
But the mood at Jack’s is decidely somber. A few days earlier, the farmers in these parts were told not to expect any federally supplied water this year due to a third year of drought and low levels in the reservoirs. Without water, they can’t plant their lettuce and tomatoes, and they may lose parts of their precious almond and pistachio orchards. All this land flourished with water brought from hundreds of miles away, snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada.
In reporting for our series on water scarcity in the U.S. West, I was amazed that the top farming region in the nation had not prepared itself better to deal with Mother Nature’s fickle ways with water. But many here feel they would have avoided this predicament were it not for the “man-made drought” — new regulations to save endangered fish species by sharply restricting water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. And there’s a lot of anger at environmentalists who want more water for wildlife habitat and less for farming.
“Everyone’s looking to place blame,” said Jack Minnite, who owns the popular restaurant in the town of Firebaugh. “But if the environmental restrictions on the Delta were lifted, would our problems be solved?”
Probably not. As you can see in Part 4 of the water series, there is no silver bullet for the water scarcity that cloud’s California’s farming future. Climate change is expected to worsen the intensity and frequency of drought in California, leading to drastic diminution of the Sierra snowpack that serves as the state’s largest fresh surface water reserve. A combination of additional water storage infrastructure, a new canal, more low-water crops and greater conservation could save the industry, experts say. But that will require a lot of compromise and, as processing tomato buyer Frank Pitts says, “laying aside the emotion.”
One gripe that comes up time and again in these parts is that the American public and politicians do not understand what is at stake in the San Joaquin Valley. Let the region’s farms succumb to water scarcity, they say, and Americans will see less fresh produce at their supermarkets and higher prices. Oh, and then there’s that issue of food security.
Farmers insist they are not crying wolf over water. This is the worst it’s ever been for them, they say. But are California’s farmers to blame for their own water woes?
Photo credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith (A water canal and almond farmers in Firebaugh, California, February 2009)