“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” — John Steinbeck
California is parched. The state’s worst drought in decades has left its reservoirs half-naked, if not skeletal. Officials say 17 communities could run out of drinking water this summer; some are considering mandatory rationing; and 500,000 acres in the state may be left fallow. For the first time in its 54-year history, the California State Water Project—the world’s biggest plumbing network and the way millions of state residents get hundreds of billions of gallons of water—is essentially shutting down. In 2012 the project moved 815 billion gallons of fresh water from Northern California’s rivers to 25 million people and a million acres of farmland in the arid central and southern parts of the state. Last year, the driest on record, the system delivered 490 billion gallons, down 40 percent. This year, the planned water distribution is zero.
Two-thirds of California’s 38 million people and most of its $45 billion farm products depend on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain watersheds, imported via thousands of miles of pipelines, canals, and the Colorado River. Although snowfall is up this winter in the Rockies, precipitation in both mountain watersheds has been going down over the last 14 years, raising scary questions for the nation’s most populous state: What if drought is the new normal? Where will California find the water it needs?
Additionally, about 14.5% of California’s energy comes from the now greatly reduced use of our 400 hydroelectric water plants which will translate into higher energy costs in the state in the near future. It is estimated that approximately 40% of food produce costs are fuel related in the state, though not all energy use is electricity based.
The really bad news is that those connected that rely on Federal and State pipes and canals for their water are coming into serious problems as the water isn’t going to show up. It is unprecedented and is breaking a 54-year long contract that the federal government is not allowing any water passing through to the Central Valley farmers at this time. This happening at a time when the mountain water floodgates would just be beginning to be released for the coming growing food season throughout the state.
It also needs to be very clearly noted that in past droughts, like in the mid-70’s in California, the state government led a campaign to get us all to reduce water consumption together. “Shower with a friend”, “Drink wine not water” and the all-time classic, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow and if it’s brown, flush it down” were so popular that the state provide bumper stickers free for anyone to put on their cars to help spread the word to conserve. Not this time.
What we are likely to see is a series of more dramatic cuts from municipality watershed managers as the summer progresses and stressed water reserves get more critical. The state water agency just announced quick formation of a “Critical Response Water Shortage Crisis Team”, presumably to prioritize who gets the critical water available and who does not.
Most fortunately, we in Anderson Valley rely on our streams, river and groundwater wells for our critical water supplies in the Navarro Watershed. Without enough adequate water, locally grown food supplies might also be declining this year in AV. So I thought I would take an informal poll of fellow friends and farmers in AV to help all understand what their growing plans will be for the coming season.
Here are some of their responses:
Nikki and Steve of Petit Teton Farm: Since Petit Teton Farm is in Yorkville where water is always scarce, Nikki and Steve have always been conscious of water use. A year and a half ago a complex system was installed connecting the farm's four wells, and at the height of growing season Nikki and Steve prepare a weekly four-page watering schedule for their extensive drip system. This year they will not do a CSA because they can't guarantee enough produce by late summer/fall, and they will only be growing for their commercial kitchen, farm visitors, and the Ukiah Farmer's Market.
Mike and Vickie of Brock Farms: Brock Farms sits in the lower parts of Anderson Valley. They have grown and sold locally produced food throughout the county for the past twenty five years. Vickie is crossing her fingers “We’re hoping for strong rains through March into April, and then she will see what happens next”.
Tim and Renee Ward of Boont Berry Farm: Last January Tim attended the Eco Farm Conference down in Monterey where much discussion was around different techniques for no till farming methods, soil radiation management, water conservation and biodynamic practices. “We’re cutting back our produce plantings by a little North of 50%” says Tim. “And then we’ll see.” He is also in transition with meat production. Tim says, "I'm ramping up my chicken productions and cutting back on larger animals to feed this year." Last year they rented the former Loving Bloom’s greenhouse on Nash Mill Road and provided starts for the valley but will not be doing starts for public sale this year.
Pam and Roy Laird of Blue Meadow Farms: Pam is delighted with the recent rains, which means she can plant most of her regular crops. She was not looking forward to cutting out her treasured zinnias at all! She does plan to forgo corn and possibly pumpkins this year, however, and may grow more tomatoes as they take very little water once the plants are established. She’s waiting to see about mid-summer plantings. The farm's irrigation water comes from Mill Creek. Roy is ably recovering from knee surgery about two weeks back. They had a good farm season last year, but know the water issue will determine how much Pam can grow for the community going forward.
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Water is Life, on what should realistically be called “Planet Water”, since it occupies two-thirds of our living planet.
Now is the time we all need to maintain, conserve and closely monitor the water we have. Everyone is encouraged to grow food this season for themselves and their neighbors as well as provide local support for our local farmers and food shed as we go into this new growing season ahead.
All are welcome to the AV Food Shed’s “Conversation about Conservation” teach in and workshops, followed by a pot luck dinner this Sunday, March 16 @ 3:30 p.m. at the Solar Grange #669 in Philo. We will have presentations by local water authorities as well as workshops on well maintenance, water catchments systems for home and business, crops to plant in drought years and land water harvesting techniques and methods.