How SCDS farming families are coping with the drought

California is currently in the heat of its fourth consecutive dry year, as water levels continue to fall and Californians continue to consume water.

With the impending drought-caused water restrictions, many farm owners are now facing skyrocketing water prices and harsh rationing.  However, Country Day’s agriculture families have managed to persevere.

Junior Jag Lally’s family has had continued success farming various nuts including almonds, walnuts, and pistachios, he said.

According to Lally, many farmers, including his family, are switching from almonds and walnuts to pistachios because pistachios require less water.

“It takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond,” Lally said. “Pistachios don’t consume as much water, so they’re better for the drought and more profitable.”

Lally said that his family is also converting from flood irrigation to drip and microjet irrigation to conserve water.

Flood irrigation, true to its name, involves flooding entire fields to water the crops. Drip irrigation is much more efficient, and involves long tubes with small holes that allow water to flow out and into the ground. Microjet irrigation, a system of small sprinklers, is also more efficient than flood.

Lally added that his family hasn’t been greatly affected by the water restrictions, despite the increased water prices. That’s because all water used on his family’s farms comes from their own artesian wells, which can be anywhere from 250-1000 feet deep.

Although most of the Lallys’ crops are located in Yuba City, some are in Southern California. They are in the process of selling their southern farms, which have been rendered useless by Southern California’s acute water shortage.

“Delano County in SoCal has the best almond soil, but there’s no water anymore,” Lally said. “Lots of almond trees had to be ripped out.”

Similarly, sophomore Emil Erickson’s family’s walnut, olive, and pecan farms have been thriving despite the drought due to riparian water rights.

Riparian rights allow owners of water-bordering properties to use the water in reasonable amounts. Since most of the Ericksons’ land is on the river, they have access to these rights.

According to Ken Erickson, Emil’s father, his family has three options for obtaining water for their farms: river water, well water, and purchased state water. His family has chosen to use a combination of well water and river water.

Although those on the river have riparian rights, the agencies monitoring the river water rationing have cut down the allotted amount by a significant percentage this year, Erickson said.

The Ericksons, like the Lallys, have turned away from flood irrigation in search of more efficient means of watering. Erickson said he chose sprinklers, because they’re not only more efficient than flood irrigation, they’re good for walnuts as well.

“Agriculture in general is very cognizant of the drought,” Erickson said. “It’s on everyone’s minds.

“I came in during a rough time; it’s only my second year of farming. But because of that, I’ve never known anything other than the mindset of constantly trying to use water more efficiently.”

Erickson admitted that nobody really knows when or how the drought will end.

“If the drought continues to go on, eventually there is going to be a tipping point where there’s just not enough water,” he said. “People are holding their breaths – hoping things will change, hoping the pendulum will swing back.

“Because if it doesn’t, it’s going to affect many lives and individuals – not just in the agriculture industry, but everybody.”

Erickson said he understands the controversy behind California’s continued agriculture exportation – as many agriculture experts argue, growing produce in California and then exporting it out of state is essentially shipping California’s precious water away.

Sophomore Christian Van Vleck’s family is facing a more challenging situation.

“Fifty-five percent of our water was cut by the federal and state water systems this year,” Nicole Van Vleck, Christian’s mother, said. “But we have wells that account for 15 percent, so our total operation has been cut by 40 percent.”

As rice farmers, the Van Vlecks’ only option is flood irrigation. To minimize water waste, an elaborate process takes place before each season.

GPS satellites are used to map the precise topography of the ground on which the rice will be planted, Van Vleck said. That topographical data is then used to laser level the ground with a drag scraper, leaving a perfectly flat basin. When the time is right, water fills the clay-like basin like a bathtub. The water is no more than five inches high at any point in the paddy.

In August, the fields are drained; about a third of the water is actually fed back into the river, as if it had never been used at all, Van Vleck said.

“In the meantime,” she added, “the rice paddies in Sacramento Valley provide a valuable habitat for over 240 different species. Millions of ducks and geese migrate to the fields to rest and feed each winter.”

Despite the dire situation, Van Vleck sees a silver lining.

“This state doesn’t operate unless faced with a crisis, and in November we passed Proposition 1 which helped with water infrastructure in California,” she said. “That won’t solve the entire problem though, it will take more.

“We prepare for the worse, hope for the best. It really does teach us to manage as efficiently as possible.

“Any time we’ve had resource issues in California, whether it’s energy shortages or water shortages, we’ve found ways to be more efficient. Each decade we get better and better.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email