CIRS Blog about Rural California

The lack of water to grow crops dominated farm-related news in the San Joaquin Valley during the spring and summer of 2014. The federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project announced zero allocations for the water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley that buy water from them, although the SWP raised its allocation to five percent in April 2014. 

California has eight million acres of irrigated land, and 410,000 acres or five percent are expected to be fallowed in 2014 due to lack of water, including 10,000 acres that would normally be planted to vegetable and melon crops. About 40 percent of California's irrigated crop land, some 3.2 million acres, are planted to trees and vines.

A UCD study released in May 2014 estimated that San Joaquin Valley growers would receive a net 1.5 million fewer acre feet of surface water in 2014, which could lead to 6,400 fewer jobs in crop production, three percent of the average 200,000 farm worker jobs in the San Joaquin Valley and 1.5 percent of the state's average farm employment of 400,000. An additional 8,000 related nonfarm jobs could be lost. Some of the farm and nonfarm jobs expected to be lost are seasonal. 

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With California’s final cap-and-trade budget including funding for agricultural land conservation, it is increasingly important to understand the dynamics of farmland trends in the state. The more we know about land use trends, the more we can work to ensure that threatened farmland is adequately protected through the most appropriate tools and policies.

The Farmland Conservation Strategy Act, AB 1961, aimed to do just that. Co-sponsored by CalCAN, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, and American Farmland Trust, the bill would have required counties with significant agricultural resources to inventory their farmland, define their goals and policies to conserve farmland and mitigate for its loss, and publish that information on the county website. However, heavy opposition from the California Building Industry Association led to AB 1961’s failure to get out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

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By Hannah Guzik

When Irene Gomez emigrated from Mexico at 14, she immediately began working in the strawberry fields in the Oxnard Plain.

The work was exhausting, poorly paid and unreliable — but that was the least of her problems. She was also helping a friend escape from a violent relationship and was worried about living in the U.S. without legal papers.

She was overwhelmed, but felt she had nowhere to turn.

Gomez speaks Mixteco, an indigenous language that existed before the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. She’s among the estimated 165,000 indigenous farmworkers who have immigrated to California in the last two decades. About 60 percent of them do not speak English or Spanish.

Although many counties have programs that provide at least some medical care to this population, access to mental health services is extremely limited in most parts of the state.

This is despite the fact that indigenous farmworkers are believed to face higher amounts of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population, said Sandra Barrientos, a therapist with the Ventura County Health Care Agency.

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In the San Joaquin Valley, water is pumped out of aquifers at roughly twice the rate of replenishment through precipitation. Groundwater overdraft is a common phenomenon all over California, where demand for water outweighs supply. This is especially true during drought years, and of paramount concern right now because of California’s multiyear drought. Underground water levels have declined as much as 200 feet in the San Joaquin Valley during the past two years alone.

 

This year, California water experts estimate that over-pumping from groundwater aquifers will make up for over 1.5 trillion gallons of water that will not be delivered through the state’s extensive surface water projects. Compensating with groundwater is a risky and costly enterprise. UC Davis predicts that the increased groundwater use will cost nearly $500 million, with the greatest share of resource and economic impacts occurring in the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin.

 

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Maximum land subsidence in the United States USGSThe signs on this pole in Mendota, CA show the approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977. The rate of subsidence is even faster now.

 

 

Like any natural resource, the surface of the earth is dynamic and ever-changing, and responsive to what happens around and underneath it. Land subsidence is the process by which land surfaces sink downward. Upper layers of the subsoil dry out and compact, reducing the pore sizes or eliminating the spaces between soil particles. This is a permanent, irreversible condition—watering the soil does not and will not cause the land to rebound in altitude. The land literally sinks under its own weight, filling voids where water has been extracted, thus decreasing the total storage capacity of the affected aquifer. As the water table drops, shallow wells can dry up, and the water levels in nearby lakes and streams also drop. Groundwater overdraft can cause seawater intrusion in coastal areas, further degrading the quality of remaining groundwater. The Mojave River Basin recently experienced desiccation cracks, sink holes, and fissures more than three feet wide and deep as a result of groundwater overdraft.

More than 80 percent of the identified subsidence in the United States (affecting over 17,000 sq. miles in 45 states) is a consequence of groundwater depletion by humans. In Merced County, for example, unsustainable groundwater pumping caused an alarming subsidence rate of nearly a foot per year during the past two years—much faster than previously documented.

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Controversy awaits the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) at its July meeting. Due to decreasing water supplies and an extreme drought, the State Board has ordered junior water rights holders in certain watersheds to reduce or cease water diversions. Earlier in June, some senior water rights holders received State Board letters warning of possible curtailments to their water uses as well. So far, these lucky few have maintained their ability to use basically unlimited amounts of water while cities and farmers face mandatory cutbacks, and while several rural communities risk running out of drinking water.  

 

The Associated Press recently found that just 24 of the 3,897 entities with active senior and riparian rights (more than half of which are corporations) reported using more than twice the volume of water that California’s massive state and federal water projects deliver to cities and farms in an average year. To re-state: twenty-four individual senior water rights holders use double the volume of water that is delivered through the state’s vast and extensive system of dams, canals, and aqueducts during an average year. This year, state water projects have reduced deliveries by 95 percent. Senior water rights holders have not been required to conserve water or reduce use by even a gallon.

 

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