For farms in California, water is the lifeblood flowing through them and keeping them alive. At Terra Firma, the “heart” of our farm is the big natural gas engine that pumps water to our fields from the Putah South Canal of the Solano Irrigation District. It beats away six days a week, 24 hours a day all summer and fall, a constant hum under the chirping of the birds, the roar of the tractors, and the lilting sounds of Ranchero music.
This year, though, the farm has been unusually quiet. The rains in March and April came at regular intervals, allowing us to plant between storms and then let Mother Nature do the irrigating. And the cool weather has kept the ground from drying out, until this week.
We fired up the big pump first the first time just yesterday. When the Irrigation District field man came by yesterday to turn it on, he told me it had been another hard year to be in the business of selling water: “No one’s wanted any water so far this year. We couldn’t even give it away!”.
It’s been a little while since I’ve written about water. Back in January and February it seemed like we might be entering — or returning — to a drought. As a year-round farmer, it personally makes me happy to be able to say that some years up to half the water we need for our crops comes directly from the sky. I don’t enjoy irrigating our fields in the winter. So I was happy when the storms finally arrived in late winter and early spring. Like many areas, we ended up slightly below normal for precipitation, but others ended up at 100% or even higher than average.
There are two components of drought. The first is the lack of rain and snow, which keeps reservoirs and aquifers from refilling. But going into 2018, reservoirs were still very full from the wet year in 2017. We certainly didn’t need another very wet year — once the reservoirs are full, the water simply runs off, floods low-lying areas and then goes out to sea.
The second component of drought, though, is that water resources get exhausted. When it’s not raining, everyone uses more water. When it’s raining, farmers don’t need to irrigate and homeowners don’t need to water their lawns or wash their cars. Not only is water being added to reservoirs…none is leaving. It’s like a doubling affect.
The storms of 2018 arrived just in time to repeatedly soak much of the farmland in California repeatedly — even pretty far down into the generally parched San Joaquin Valley. This meant that agriculture used very little water in March and April. And with the soil still moist deep down, it won’t take as much water to grow summer crops as it does in a dry year.
And in the mountains that provide our critical water storage, both reservoirs and snow pack, the storms dumped an enormous amount of precipitation — mostly in the form of snow. Instead of quickly running off into the reservoirs, that snow melts and seeps into the ground where it sinks in and fuels streams and rivers that will run well into the summer. Almost every reservoir in the state system is now close to full, and will likely remain there well into the summer.
In the end, Winter of 2018 seems like it was just about what the state needed after the literally dam-busting 2017. Unless, of course, you’re trying to sell water.