CIRS Blog about Rural California
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.
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.
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.
Maximum land subsidence in the United States USGS. The 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.
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.
Marijuana is the top cash crop in California and nationwide. In 2005, the U.S. Deptartment of Agriculture found that the average production value of marijuana—more than $30 billion—far exceeded the value of corn or soybeans. More recent numbers indicate that the value of marijuana exceeds the combined value of corn and soybeans, but these market estimates vary widely.
Marijuana is an exceptionally water-loving crop. A pilot study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) found that concentrated marijuana cultivation has the potential to completely dewater streams and other sources of water (e.g. mountain seeps and springs). The most common method for securing water for growing cannabis is siting grow operations in locations with reliable year-round water sources to draw upon. It is no coincidence that the so-called “Emerald Triangle”—the most productive region for cannabis in the country—is located in the part of California that receives the most average rainfall. In regions with less water and/or during recent drought years when precipitation levels dropped, CDFW also documented the groundwater use for grow operations and importing water by truck.
These findings are significant, particularly during the third year of California’s historic drought. Despite a statewide law that allows for the legal cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana, illegal grow operations have proliferated especially in the past two decades. Every year, California authorities receive complaints about marijuana on public lands, often involving armed trespassers who divert water from local sources. Many of these operations are secretly set up in protected wilderness areas that provide limited habitat for vulnerable species, like salmonids and fishers. In addition to high-volume water use, chemical fertilizers and rodenticides have impacted local and downstream water resources as well as wildlife.
Groundwater is an essential buffer against the effects of prolonged drought. Many Californians think of stored water as water kept on the surface—usually in reservoirs behind dams—but California actually has vast underground basins that hold far more water than can be stored above ground.
In reality, groundwater and surface water are a single combined resource, constantly interacting and interchanging. Some programs in California recharge aquifers through carefully planned and prescribed water management practices to ensure adequate supply in the future. In these well-managed areas and some other parts of the state, aquifers still contain sufficient water despite the multi-year drought.
Other parts of the state, like the Tulare Lake Basin, have been dealing with the effects of groundwater overdraft for years already. These effects include higher pumping costs, depletion of surface water, degraded water quality in aquifers, and land subsidence.
On average, about 30 percent of water used in California comes from groundwater. With no end in sight to drought conditions, and diminishing options for acquiring water from long-established water projects, farmers are relying more heavily on groundwater this year.
A recent UC Davis report, prepared for the CA Department of Food and Agriculture, estimates that California’s surface water shortage will be around 6.5 million acre feet in 2014, and increased groundwater pumping will make up for around 5 million acre feet. However, increased groundwater use will come at a cost of nearly $500 million, and more than half of the economic impacts involving groundwater overdraft will occur in the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basins.
By Daniel Weintraub
California is a land of health extremes, and to see what that means, you need only travel a few miles from the state Capitol.
Placer and Yuba counties border each other about a half hour’s drive north of downtown Sacramento. Both places are largely rural. But the similarities end there.
Placer’s residents are, on average, much healthier than their neighbors across the county line. A person living in Yuba County is much more likely to suffer from chronic disease and die at an early age than someone living in Placer. In fact, Placer’s residents are among the healthiest in California, while Yuba’s are among the sickest by many measures.
The easiest explanation for the difference is wealth. Health and wealth are connected, here and almost everywhere in California and across the country. No one is sure exactly why they go together, but the answer is more complicated than the fact that people with higher incomes also tend to have better access to medical care. Even when access to care is the same, health disparities remain, because a large share of a person’s health is determined by things outside a doctor’s office or hospital room.
California’s drought will deal a severe blow to Central Valley irrigated agriculture and farm communities this year, and could cost the industry $1.7 billion and cause more than 14,500 workers to lose their jobs, according to preliminary results of a new study by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Researchers estimated that Central Valley irrigators would receive only two-thirds of their normal river water deliveries this year because of the drought.
The preliminary analysis represents the first socio-economic forecast of this year’s drought, said lead author Richard Howitt, a UC Davis professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics.
“We wanted to provide a foundation for state agricultural and water policymakers to understand the impacts of the drought on farmers and farm communities,” Howitt said.
The Central Valley is the richest food-producing region in the world. Much of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown on the region’s 7 million acres of irrigated farmland.
California’s primary election will be held on Tuesday, June 3. The last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot from county elections offices is Tuesday, May 27. On election day, polls will be open from 7:00 AM until 8:00 PM. Turnout is expected to be very low, as is often the case in primary elections in non-presidential election years, which means that your vote is even more important than usual.
California currently has more than 6 million residents who are not registered to vote. Registration is simple, and it is not too late, yet. Today, Monday, May 19th is the last day to register to vote or update voter registration for the June 3 primary.
California is one of just three states that uses a “blanket primary” system which allows many candidates to run, but only the top two candidates in terms of overall votes proceed to the general election. This is the case regardless of party or political affiliation, and results in general elections that often come down to two candidates from the same party.
This year, there are dozens of races underway, varied local measures, two statewide propositions (41 and 42), and State Senate primaries for even-numbered districts. 2014 promises to be an especially interesting year for gauging the status of the Republican Party in California.
Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is up for reelection this year. Republican gubernatorial primary candidates include tea party favorite Tim Donnelly, State Assemblymember from Twin Peaks, and the significantly more moderate Neel Kashkari, former U.S. Treasury official. Donnelly and Kashkari squared off in their first (and likely only) debate last week. Glenn Champ is also a candidate for governor and has received a lot of attention but generally not for his political beliefs; he is a registered sex offender and has branded himself as a “new breed of Christian soldier.” Several other candidates have impacted the political conversation this year, but are unlikely to win the primary. There are 15 registered gubernatorial candidates including incumbent Jerry Brown.
WASHINGTON — Beneath a placid surface, California lawmakers are furiously churning to keep an anti-drought bill afloat.
They’re counting votes, making tradeoffs and tinkering with language. They’re confronting singular political calculations like: Will a Lake Mead provision for Nevada, home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, cause problems with other Democrats upstream in Colorado?
And, no mean feat, they are meeting.
Last week, he issued his second proclamation of drought emergency since the start of the year. In doing so, he called out the likely connection between the drought and climate change, stating, “We are playing Russian Roulette with our environment.”
The Governor’s proclamation orders expedited actions and eases regulations across key state agencies and local actors, including the Department of Food and Agriculture, Department of Water Resources, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and local homeowners associations.
In addressing the needs of water users across the state, it is clear the Governor faces some tough decisions for managing drought impacts on farms, cities, and the environment. Too timid a response could leave water users stranded; too heavy a hand could hurt regulatory authority and damage fragile ecosystems already crippled by drought.
The Governor has gone for a balance between these approaches, and last Friday’s executive order has largely been praised by stakeholders across the spectrum.
So what does the Governor’s second set of drought orders mean for California’s farms and ranches?
Flying Mule Farm is a family-owned commercial sheep operation located in Auburn, California co-founded by Dan and Samia Macon. Dan is a lifelong resident of the Sierra Nevada Foothills and has a degree in agriculture economics from UC Davis. Because of this year's historic drought in California, and dry years since 2007, the Macons have had to make several changes and reductions to the size of the flock. Below is a personal story of how the drought is affecting Dan and his family's ability to make a living. For more information on the Macons and Flying Mule Farm please check out the Flying Mule Farm website , Facebook page and Dan Macon's personal blog .
Audio courtesy of the UCDavisPlants Soundcloud
Last week, a prominent environmental group released its annual report identifying the top ten “endangered” streams and rivers nationwide—waterways that are at a crossroads politically, where key upcoming decisions will have major impacts for better or worse. California’s San Joaquin River, the second longest river in the state, is #1 on the list due to the historical and ongoing impacts of state water infrastructure, and major proposals to expand this infrastructure in the future. Flowing 330 miles, the River begins in the Sierra Nevada mountains and meanders through the San Joaquin Valley toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is part of the largest estuary on the west coast. Tributaries to the San Joaquin include the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Calaveras, and Mokelumne Rivers. The 10,000 square mile San Joaquin Valley receives little rainfall on average, but historical river flows have been maintained by seasonal snow melt from the Sierras. This area is the most agriculturally productive region in the country; the San Joaquin Valley supports upwards of $25 billion in food crops annually. The San Joaquin River provides important transportation corridors for agricultural products and since the early 1900s, the river has been routinely dredged to allow large cargo ships to navigate.
It is well documented that major changes to the Delta and the San Joaquin River have resulted from human activities, especially water diversions and other infrastructure that captures and transports water away from the Delta to drier parts of the state. Some studies estimate less than five percent of the native biodiversity of the Delta remains, with the tidal marsh habitats being most degraded. Chinook salmon and other native fish struggle to maintain healthy population levels as aquatic habitat areas along the San Joaquin (and many other waterways in and near the Delta) have been degraded and blocked by in-stream water diversions and monumental structures like dams.
Water diversions and stream barriers reduce flows and physically alter the surrounding habitat areas. According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, many of these alterations and changes will be permanent: [t]he characteristics of the earlier Delta that are likely gone forever include (1) physical habitat appropriate for species that tend to rely on shallow water and structure for refuge and feeding; (2) food aggregation that long, complex sloughs and channels provide through increased production and retention, and (3) cooling functions that adjacent wetlands provide for small water bodies, such as sloughs, which provide refuge for fishes during summer heat spells.
WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley lobbying priorities this week can be summed up simply.
“Water, water, water,” Brenda Veenendaal, senior regional planner with the Fresno Council of Governments, said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
In separate, but overlapping lobbying trips that formally began Monday, officials from both Fresno and Tulare counties have been seeking support from elected lawmakers, all-important staff and Obama administration higher-ups. These are annual ventures that this year took on a different, wetter cast.
Water projects and drought relief now top the Fresno County COG wish list, which in previous years emphasized roads and rail. In some ways, the state’s well-documented drought emergency has simplified the Valley officials’ sales job, as bipartisan congressional action actually seems possible.
“It seems like they are starting to come out of their bunkers,” said Amarpreet Dhaliwal, mayor of the city of San Joaquin and chair of the Fresno COG Policy Board. “There seems to be some thawing, a little bit of movement.”
California is experiencing a long term drought. As a result, CIRS is examining various aspects of the California water system. This week, we are looking at a desert region where per capita water use is the highest in the state for a non-industrial area at 736 gallons per person per day.
(Graphic from of the San jome Mercury News)
The Coachella Valley is located in eastern Riverside County, California. The entire valley sits in the basin north of the Salton Sea bounded by various strands of the very active San Andreas Fault System. The San Andreas Fault traverses the Valley's east side. The Santa Rosa Mountains to the West are part of the Elsinore Fault Zone.The Inland Empire-Salton Trough region is geologically and seismologically the most complex part of the San Andreas Fault system in southern California. Over the past 15 million years, several strands of the main San Andreas Fault have moved coastal California northwestward in relation to the desert interior. The trough of the Coachella Valley is surrounded by mountain ranges rising up to 11,000 feet in elevation while the valley floor drops to 250 feet below sea level at its lowest around the town of Mecca. In the summer, daytime temperatures range from 104 ° F to 112 ° F and winter temperatures range from 68 F to 88 F making the Coachella Valley a very popular winter resort. The Valley is the northwestern extension of the Sonoran Desert to the southeast and is extremely arid. The majority of rainfall occurs during the winter months. Rain may sometimes fall during the summer months as a result of the desert monsoon.
Despite producing mixed results for sustainable agriculture interests, President Obama’s 2015 budget request is an encouraging sign that the federal government is getting serious about climate change, and particularly about adapting to its impacts.
The President’s proposal includes a $1 billion dollar Climate Resilience Fund, which is intended to strengthen preparedness of states and communities for increasingly extreme weather like floods, droughts, and wildfires. The fund would support investment in research, technologies, and infrastructure across numerous agencies and sectors, including agriculture.
Of course, we need not look far to find proof of the urgent need for such an initiative.
Word of the fund first came out in February, when Obama met with growers and ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of drought-stricken California. While touring the farm of Joe and Maria Del Bosque, who have fallowed their melon fields due to water shortages, the President emphasized the role federal support could play in alleviating drought impacts and preparing for the future.
“A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods are potentially going to be costlier,” he noted, “And they’re going to be harsher.”
California’s drought has moved far beyond “severe,” and is making national and international headlines because of its far-reaching impacts. Most areas of the state are officially in “extreme” drought, with key coastal regions and agricultural areas in the Central Valley experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions. Political leaders scrambled to pass legislative relief packages as it became clear that the state would have another unusually dry winter. State and local officials have asked residents to reduce water use in homes and businesses. Meanwhile, major state and federal water projects have completely shut off water deliveries to already parched urban areas and agricultural agencies due to inadequate supply.
Impact of California’s drought on farmworkers
The effects of this year’s drought in California are being discussed in both statewide and national media. California produces vegetables, fruits, nuts and dairy products for most of the country and for international export. Debate rages about what foods use the most water, what products will be most affected and how consumer food bills will increase. One of the groups of people most seriously impacted by the reduction in planting but least discussed is the farmworker population.
Farm laborers are already one of the most vulnerable sectors of the population and the drought this year will put them even more at risk. The average annual income for a farmworker is $13,800. This places many farmworkers at risk for hunger, poor housing and subsequent health impacts. In some rural California communities that rely almost exclusively on agriculture for work, unemployment rates are already high, even at peak season.
By Adam Kotin and Dru Marion
On January 31, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced that no water would be delivered this year from the State Water Project to its twenty-nine public water agency customers — a first in the Project’s 54-year history. These deliveries help supply water to 25 million Californians and roughly 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland. DWR also announced that allocations to Sacramento Valley agricultural districts would be cut in half.
The current drought, which continues to smash records statewide, has inspired a litany of articles and musings on the drought of 1976-1977. To be sure, there are some striking similarities between our current predicament and the dire situation 37 years ago – including the fact that then, as now, Jerry Brown was the fellow declaring the emergency.
But California has often endured water scarcity throughout its history, and each occasion has brought its own challenges. Out of those challenges have come valuable lessons, and as the current dry spell becomes more severe it is worth remembering – and learning from – the state’s long history of unpredictable weather fluctuations.
This is the final of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. The first explained California’s surface water infrastructure. The second focused on ground water management. The third brief addressed water quality and this brief will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of the fourth brief: CAWaterProposalsbrief.pdf
California has been at the vanguard of environmental law and policy for over a century. The state adapts and expands these policies and laws as new information and technologies become available, and as previously unknown (or nonexistent) environmental issues emerged. The earliest water projects favored heavy-duty infrastructure like dams and canals to capture, control, and transport water from the wetter areas of the state to more populous and agricultural areas. California’s extensive surface water storage and delivery infrastructure originated with studies conducted in the 1870s, and with construction of dams and canals that began a few decades later. Subsequent water projects and public investments in water tended to build upon and improve existing infrastructure; a trend which continues until today. Public water projects are complicated by a legacy of convoluted private water rights that started during the Gold Rush era and further developed in courtroom battles between private landowners.
However, our economic, social, and scientific understandings of water have improved substantially over the years. While dozens of water issues are extremely important, a recent study revealed that most water experts agree that improved management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water supply network is paramount. This study also identified the next four priorities to address: dysfunctional institutions at all levels of water governance, an unsustainable water supply, poorly managed groundwater, and the effects of climate change and flood risk. State government leaders are currently considering several proposals to address some of these concerns.