A year ago, California was still deep in drought. Reservoirs and wells across the state were low or completely dry and water restrictions were in place. To paraphrase Steinbeck, it seemed that the drought was going to last forever. A year later, the drought has been vanquised.
During periods of drought, a vicious cycle starts where dryness begets more dryness. Dry air pulls water from the landscape, from trees and plants, and from reservoirs. Farmers have to irrigate for more months of the year, more frequently, pulling additional water from acquifers or reservoirs that are already stressed. And the irrigation is less efficient, as more of it evaporates before it even soaks into the ground.
In a drought-busting year such as this one, the entire paradigm is flipped. The most obvious example was with our winter crops last year, which essentially were irrigated entirely by rainfall from early November onwards. And many of our spring-planted crops needed little or no water until May.
We get about half our water from Lake Berrryessa, and the other half from wells. At the end of March, the reservoir was about 85% full — up from just over 50% in 2022. And after their long winter vacation, our wells are producing more abundantly than they have in many years. That means the water table has risen dramatically, recharging the acquifer.
And once we started irrigating, we used far less water. The soil itself remained hydrated down a foot, meaning we were only watering the plants — not the thirsty soil that can soak up several times its weight of water when it is bone dry. Nowhere was this more evident than in our orchards, whose deep roots had access to the more than 3 feet of rainfall that had filled their root zone during the winter. The trees were more lush and green than they were in any of the drought years, despite being irrigated far less.
Then there was the weather, which stayed cool through most of June, greatly reducing the water needs of all the plants.
Even with our fairly high efficiency irrigation systems, Terra Firma uses about a million gallons of water in 24 hours when all the pumps are running. The last few years, we’ve been irrigating 6 days a week non-stop from mid-April through Halloween. This year, we have irrigated dramatically less: 4 or 5 days a week at the peak. Over the course of the season, that is tens of millions of gallons less water used.
I assumed all this would change in the fall. With both summer and winter crops growing, autumn is usually our busiest time for irrigation. Crops like leafy greens, green beans and carrots require more water than watermelons and tomatoes when they are small and it’s hot. And during the drought, bouts of dry wind were more frequent and longer duration. Keeping all those young, tender crops moist can be very stressful bordering on impossible.
But after a very short summer with about six weeks of normally hot weather, this year has returned to “cool” mode. Our fall and winter crops are as happy as I have ever seen them, and keeping up with irrigation has been much less of a challenge. And after a short and mellow irrigation season, our groundwater acquifers and reservoir still contain far more water than they did last fall or any time in recent memory. And it’s not just here — with a few notable exceptions, the entire state’s water supply is in great shape.
Right now there is much speculation about the coming winter and how wet it might be. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter that much for California. We got a lucky break, and hopefully our leaders are going to use this opportunity to better prepare for the next drought.