Facing the possibility of another historic drought, California’s strong man, Arnold Schwarzenegger, declared a state of emergency in February of this year. One third of the fruit and vegetables imported into Quebec and Canada are grown in the Golden State where a unique conflict is pitting farmers against environmentalists against city-dwellers. If this celebrity state wants to remain North America’s garden, farmers will have to resort to state-of-the-art irrigation systems and choose crops that required less water, because in the land of plenty, water is worth more than gold!



“This year, we were allocated two-thirds less water from the delta than usual. That hurts! In the future, we’re considering digging a well to pump out groundwater. This is a $500,000 investment including the pump and energy costs. Besides, it’s not good quality water! Instead I think we’ll be decreasing our production area,” explains Chuck Dees, irrigation manager for Stamoules Produce Co., one of the main suppliers of broccoli and cantaloupe to the Quebec and Canadian markets. During the busy season, some 120 trucks leave the farm each day to deliver vegetables across Canada and all over Mexico and the United States.

Chuck Dees swears by his ultra-modern irrigation system for farming in the Sacramento-San Joaquin area, at the heart of California farm country. And if spring 2008 wasn’t enough, the driest in 88 years, the manager has also had to deal with a judicial ruling that shut off water to the area’s farmers. According to official statistics, California’s cities and business siphon 11% of available water; agriculture draws 41% while 48% remains in its natural environment. Now more than ever, as they face a major crisis, farmers, environmentalists and city-dwellers are battling for this liquid gold. .

While Quebeckers harnessed the James Bay rivers and created a humongous hydroelectric complex, Californians have the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta: a marvel of engineering made up of a network of canals, dams, and reservoirs financed and built by Washington and the State of California some 50 years ago for the purpose of irrigating the dried out yet fertile lands of America’s foremost agricultural state.
 
However, this network is also California’s main source of potable water and the state’s population has doubled since the first shovel hit the dirt. Nowadays, all of this piping is so obsolete it can barely supply life’s essential liquid to area’s 23 million inhabitants, which represents two-thirds of California’s population.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin delta is also one of the richest ecosystems of America’s west coast. In April 2008, by ordering the Tracy pumping station to temporarily halt its operations, Federal Judge Oliver Wanger, rationed up to 40% of the water allocated to agricultural production in some areas in the hope of saving the delta spelt, a tiny little fish prey to several species of birds and fish. This plant is the largest potable and irrigation pump station in the world and is at the heart of the delta’s water resource system. The six-25,000 horsepower engines lined up across the Sacramento River are supposedly pulverizing delta smelt into a muddled pulp.  

Barry Nelson,senior political analyst with the National Defense Resources Council (NDRC) http://www.nrdc.org/, ONG who led the judicial battle to protect the delta spelt.

Farmers want more dams to irrigate their lands. However, environmentalist at the defence of the delta spelt and fighting for other species, such as salmon swimming upstream to spawn, affirm that California’s rivers are already filled with some 1,200 dams. In 2008, and for the first time in the history of California, commercial salmon fishing was prohibited, a trade activity worth $250 million US per year, in an effort to regenerate stocks.

“The delta smelt is a symbol of an ecological, economic and institutional crisis. The various agencies responsible for managing California’s water resources are not doing their job. In this specific case, we won the battle against the Department of the Interior by citing the Endangered Species Act’s protected species rules,” explains Barry Nelson, senior political analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the most powerful and effective environmental action groups in the United States.

“There’s no doubt that the judicial decision caused the price of water to increase!” states Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, an organization dedicated to educating the public on how farmers actually use water.* “A lot of farmers have had to leave their land fallow this year because of the water shortage. Prices have risen on an average by $200 to $400 per acre-foot and up to $900 per acre-foot,” explains Frances Mizuno of the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority, one of the 450 public water agencies responsible for supplying farmers, cities and businesses. (One acre-foot is the volume of water sufficient to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot, which is equal to 1,233 m3 or the same as emptying an Olympic-size pool into one hectare.)

Faced with water scarcity and high prices, California producers have already begun to replace their crops; some of them gave up dairy production and converted their operations to growing nuts. But at these prices, even almond and pistachio producers, who, apart from winemakers, produce the most lucrative crops – and equipped with the most updated drop irrigation system – are allowing young trees to die this year to save those already in production. An almond tree requires three to five years before reaching maturity, while a pistachio tree needs eight years.
 
The delta spelt, a tiny fish barely ten centimetres in length, is sinking California, the eighth largest economy in the world, to an all-time low
Some crops, which grow in the middle of the desert, are also very controversial, such as alfalfa used in dairy cow feed or corn for the production of ethanol. Completely nonsensical, believes Dr. Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, who estimates yearly subsidies paid to California farmers for this essential liquid source at 2 billion US dollars.

The price of water has even prevailed over what years of intensive negotiations with the World Trade Organization (WTO) failed to do: put an end to the super-subsidized production of American cotton. Californians are sowing ten times less cotton than ten years ago. Still, nothing is guaranteed! To make sure they no longer have to depend on water from the delta, some producers have been over-pumping groundwater for years to water their orchards. In the Westland district, where 65% of America’s tomatoes are grown and hard hit by the judicial order, groundwater has been pumped to such extremes that the ground is falling in. “That why the main road is warped and why some houses have sunk by five metres,” explains Sarah Wolfe, spokesperson for the Westland Water District, riding along in the same bus as your correspondent. As opposed to water in the delta, groundwater is not regulated and nobody really knows how much of the precious liquid is contained in California’s aquifers.

Last September, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture estimated farming losses due water scarcity at around $320 million. “With the multiplication effect, we are talking about more than one billion dollars and 1,000 jobs,” believes Mike Wade. Besides cotton, the most affected crops are annual productions – tomatoes, bell peppers and lettuces – foods that nutritionists consider to be crucial in the fight against North America’s plague: obesity. Spoken to from her Montreal office, the spokesperson for Metro supermarkets, Josée Lessard, stated that California food prices have not yet risen. But things could change, since another drought looms on the 2009 horizon, the result of a snowless winter. Although last year governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, it only applied to agricultural districts in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, today it covers the whole territory.
 
Making Due with Less
To ensure the sustainability of California’s agriculture, Mike Wade proposes that more dams and more reservoirs be built as well as better groundwater use. This proposal was not well received by environmentalists who believe that California’s rivers, with its 1,200 dams, have been sufficiently harnessed. “Farmers can produce more with less water,” maintains Peter Gleick, co-author of the recent report of the same name and president of the Pacific Institute. During a meeting with him in his Oakland office, in a suburb of San Francisco, Gleik believes that the lack or abundance of water already redefines the world’s agricultural trade. The internationally renowned expert suggests that California farmers be allowed some kind of tax relief for purchasing sophisticated irrigation equipment, for managing this vital resource better, and that there be a redistribution of the millions of dollars in American farm subsidies to crops requiring less water and producing better revenues. He further states that “according to the four scenarios we are considering, the agricultural sector could save as much as one third of all urban water used by households, industries and commercial establishments. That represents some 3 to 20 dams.”
California’s salvation doesn’t lie solely in the hands of farmers. Saving and recycling water in urban areas, cities collecting rain water and better groundwater and farm water management would result in a larger quantity of water than what is currently being consumed by California’s 37 million people! 

California Farmers Find Salvation: Water Recycling …

In the Panoche district, agricultural drainage water is just as salty as sea water due to natural salt deposits in the soil and evaporating irrigation water. “By 2012, it will be completely illegal to discharge drainage water into the San Joaquin River,” explains Dennis Falashi, general manager for the Water and Drainage District. Over 13 years, Falashi reduced toxic water discharged into the river by 75%, from 70 million m3 to 20 million m3, which represents some 5,773 kg of selenium and 240,000 tons of salt! How? With help from the regions’ 166 nut, tomato and melon farmers. Already subjected to water rationing by the state, these farmers invested nearly $20 million US into sophisticated irrigation systems. Some of them have also had to learn how to better manage their water allocation under penalty of hefty fines for any additional needs ($50 per acre-foot). 

Mr. Falashi’s project consists of recuperating agricultural drainage water into open drains. This water would then serve to irrigate some 2,450 hectares of profitable, salt water resistant crops: almond, walnut and pistachio trees, but especially tall wheatgrass, a type of grass that has become a veritable gold mine “because it can drink an ocean.
 
Dennis Falashi, general manager of the Panoche Water and Drainage District, measures the concentration of solids dissolved in drainage water. Reading: 3,500 ppm, that’s one hundred times the level contained in a store-bought bottle of water!
” The sale of wheatgrass to cattle farmers brings in $140 US per ton! However, not all drainage water can be recuperated and Mr. Falashi intends to build a pilot water treatment plant this year at the cost of 4.5 million dollars US. The ultimate goal: to build a plant capable of recuperating tons of salt and producing a sufficient yearly volume of potable water to supply 18,000 families! According to Mr. Falashi, this plant will cover its own costs (construction and maintenance) thanks to the sale of this vital liquid.

… and Implementing Up-To-The-Minute Modern Irrigation Techniques!

California’s king of broccoli, cantaloupe and corn, Stamoules Produce Company, was only able to get one third of the water necessary to grow its crops following Judge Wanger’s ruling. The company develops 5,700 hectares, 4,000 of which are equipped with drip irrigation; the rest is set up with spray irrigation. “The cost of an irrigation system varies from $980 US to $3,430 US per hectare. Ours cost nearly $13 million US or $2,205/hectare. But this investment is returned pretty quickly,” explains Chuck Dees, the farm’s irrigation specialist. He swears by drip irrigation, which delivers water and fertilizer to plants with great precision and cost efficiency. One particularity of the Stamoules’ system is that irrigation pipes are buried at different depths, 30 cm for slow growing plants such as melons, 5 to 10 cm for rapid growing products such as onions.
 
Atomic Falaschi,in an alfalfa field. Alfalfa is the only crop included in the project an in which drainage water is diluted with quality water, since alfalfa does not resist as well to salt water. The goal of its harvest, performed four to five times per year, is above all to get rid of contaminated water. Yield represents 5 tons/acre with a price of $240 US per ton.
“Thanks to this system, weeds are having a tougher time. Furthermore, the field is never wet, which allows harvesters access at any time. This counts for something since a team costs $45/hour and we are working on 5,700 hectares,” states the man who works alongside some 2,000 employees whose total payroll is equivalent to 1.2 million dollars US per week.  

With this irrigation system, yields are very effective: more than triple in terms of green bell peppers, double that of tomatoes and one third for cantaloupes! The fully computerized system is triggered by sensors set at regular intervals throughout the fields. They measure the soil’s humidity day and night and relay this information to a central computer. Irrigation pipes have a life cycle of about 10 years. Their number one enemy: rodents. Occasionally, a plough disk will damage a tube. Maintenance cost: $1 million US per year. Eight out of the 260 tractors on the farm are equipped with a GPS, the ones that fill the planting beds in an effort to keep them from damaging expensive piping. Stamoules distributes some 10 million cases of fruit and vegetables per year in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

A Dry California: When the Nightmare Becomes Reality!


Jeff Hart, owner of Delta Ecotours, tries to raise the awareness of his fellow citizens to the Delta’s ecological role and its crucial part in preserving California’s potable water. As a consultant to governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the future of the delta, he fears Man more than any earthquake.

A single earthquake could wipe out the main source of potable water for 23 million Californians! And basically vacate North America’s fruit and vegetable bowl. The state’s worse nightmare has come true for Arnold Schwarzenegger and his citizens. The latest and biggest earthquake hit in 1906 and devastated San Francisco and it is believed that the Big One happens every one hundred years. Superstition? Not for Dr. Jeffrey Mount, professor of geology and director of the Center for Watershed Science at Davis University in California. According to his scenarios, an earthquake with a rating of 6.5 on the Richter scale would cause the dikes to break and inundate the delta’s bolters, dried out marshes cultivated several metres below sea level. This would produce a situation similar to what hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans! The invasion of Pacific salt water far into the mouths of California’s two main rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, would ruin its main source of potable water in one fell swoop.
 
Estimated cost of repairs: between 40 and 50 billion dollars. http://www.kcwa.com/kcwa_delta.pdfhttp://watershed.ucdavis.edu/



* Every year, the California Farm Water Coalition organizes a three-day visit, aimed at farmers from across the world, to familiarize them with the water issues faced by California’s farmers and their water conservation techniques. Contact: Mike Wade, Executive director: 916 391-5030, www.farmwater.org)

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