Standing in the dry bottom of Lake Mendocino last week, Governor Newsom declared a drought for Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. After the driest winter on record for many areas north of San Francisco, many people are wondering stopped there. Farmers are chief among those wondering, given that many of them around the state have already received notice that they will be receiving limited amounts of water from the state and federal reservoirs this year. Some are getting no water at all.
The term “drought” has many components. One is simply how much precipitation an area has received, over how many years, and how close that is to average. But there are naturally drier and naturally wetter areas. Many places get their water from the ground, and may have an acquifer that is fed by far-away mountains or rivers. Other dry areas get their water from a pipeline to a wetter spot. The second component of a drought is that the water supply for a given area is running low.
In California, 2017 and 2019 were both very wet years that filled up reservoirs and raised groundwater levels. Thus, despite the last two winters being excessively dry, the water supply for many regions is still doing ok. The usually very wet coastal regions north of San Francisco, however, have much more limited water storage that is 100% localized — making them more vulnerable to short-term shortages. That is why they have already imposed strict water restrictions.
The two counties we farm in, Solano and Yolo, are in very different situations. Solano County has a large local reservoir that has never limited deliveries to either its cities or its farmers. And with no mechanism connecting it to other regions, it is safe from overuse unless local governments decide to turn the county into the next San Jose or Sacramento. Because much of Lake Berryessa’s water is still used for agriculture, it serves an important secondary purpose: to continuously recharge the underground acquifers here. That means that even farmers and municipalities that are not connected to the delivery system (Solano Irrigation District) have a reliable supply of groundwater. Solano County thus has one of the most sustainable water supplies in the state.
Just north of Putah Creek, Yolo County has a very different situation. Its cities depend on the Sacramento River for their water, which they have to share with dozens of other counties and cities. And its farmers depend on a notoriously drought-insecure irrigation district that relies on one small reservoir that it owns (Indian Valley) as well as Clear Lake, from which it receives water only in years when the lake overflows. The Yolo County Irrigation District takes advantage of wet years to use the excess water from Clear Lake to recharge the county’s acquifers as much as possible, since farmers depend almost entirely on groundwater pumping in dry years. The acquifers are heavily taxed in drought years, but have always recovered during wet ones.
Terra Firma started out in Yolo County, but over the years we have gradually shifted most of our operations into Solano County. All of our land there has abundant water, whether from SID or from wells. You may have heard stories about groundwater levels in the “Central Valley” dropping and farmers pumping from a thousand feet below the surface. Here, our groundwater is just a few dozen feet down.
Nonetheless, I consider all of Terra Firma’s farmland and its watershed to now be in drought. Here we have had our lowest winter rainfall since the 1940s, just above 25% of our average. Even in the driest years we’ve seen, Terra Firma has had periods during past winters when we did not have to irrigate our crops. This year, we stopped irrigating for just 10 days — not due to rain, but simply due to the farm shutting down for vacation. And we didn’t get a single storm that provided enough rain to create runoff into the creeks and reservoir. Last winter was not AS dry as this one, but still far below average.
In the short-term, dry winters are actually good years for TFF. We are able to plant more vegetables, we have fewer weeds to deal with, and generally little or none of the disease that comes along with damp, rainy weather. And because we still have plenty of water behind the dam and underground, we can keep up with the increased irrigation needs of the crops. We are in an enviable situation compared to thousands of farmers in the state who are fallowing land, laying off employees, maybe declaring bankruptcy and possibly even selling their land.
As a CSA farm, having a secure and sustainable water source is clearly a selling point for our customers. But the fact that we are able to keep providing you with an abundance of produce is not a justification for pretending that our state as a whole is not entering a perilous period — again. One positive note that the Governor made last week is that Californians across the board are using less water now than we did at the start of the last drought thanks to widespread conservation measures and new irrigation technology.
The last ten years may actually provide a roadmap for California’s future under climate change: more frequent droughts followed by periods of more intensely wet weather. If so, agriculture will provide a critical role for creating a more resilient water system. Subdivisions and cities cannot recharge their own groundwater. Farmland can. During the last drought, far too many urbanites focused on agriculture’s perceived “excessive” water use instead of on its critical role in “recycling” water into the ground via irrigation and winter flooding.
In the coming months, you will likely start to see “Farm Shaming” begin in the media and social media over agriculture’s use of water during this drought. I would ask you to help counter the urban myth that farmers use “too much” water. It’s a divisive and unhelpful oversimplification. This is the first drought of the 2020s, but it may not be the last. We all have to work together to adapt to the new climate regime: farmers and eaters.