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Even as desperately needed rain continues to drench California, Central Valley farmers are still reeling from having their water supplies drastically reduced when the drought intensified last spring. Many farmers have been forced to rip out crops that can no longer be irrigated. Some have doubled or tripled their groundwater pumping as wells dry up before their eyes.
In the Monterey Bay area, however, crops reach toward the sun with thirst-quenched leaves. Well levels aren’t raising any alarms, and the threat of losing water supplies has mostly subsided.
“I don’t know anybody having water issues right now,” said Joe Schirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Produce, a 40-acre organic farm in Watsonville.
Motivated by a need to keep seawater from seeping into the region’s aquifers, Monterey Bay water agencies and both small farms and large corporate farms have been aggressively protecting water basins from saltwater intrusion for a quarter of a century. Expensive water-recycling projects have allowed farmers to reduce their reliance on groundwater, as conservation-minded growing practices and innovative irrigation techniques cut water waste.
“We know how important (water) is and that’s why we were so proactive to get ahead and manage the resource,” said Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens, a family-owned Pajaro Valley farm that grows a wide palate of organic vegetables.
During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the threat of saltwater intrusion loomed over farmers like a persistent shadow. They knew that if aquifer levels dipped below sea level, ocean water would continue to creep into their wells and eventually destroy them.
Horror stories began emerging in the ’90s. Castroville’s Ocean Mist Farms saw artichokes and strawberry fields wilt when seawater invaded their wells. But extensive improvements to the local wastewater treatment plant made highly treated effluent safe to use on crops in the northern stretch of the Salinas Valley. The saltwater intrusion slowed and the crops recovered.
Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens, a family-owned Pajaro Valley farm that grows a wide palate of organic vegetables, is seen in the fields in March 2016
Several years later, the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency collaborated with the city of Watsonville to build a wastewater recycling plant that in 2009 began providing reclaimed water to coastal farmers to raise the water levels of the valley’s overdrafted aquifer.
Two years ago, a state-of-the-art water treatment facility just north of Marina began sending potable water through an 8-mile pipeline that’s now being injected into wells in Seaside. And last year, Monterey Peninsula customers began drinking the recycled water out of their taps after it was mixed with existing groundwater.
In northern Santa Cruz County, the Soquel Creek Water District and the city of Santa Cruz have joined forces on a $90 million project that will pump highly treated sewage and other wastewater into three wells by 2025.
Knowing that their livelihood depends on a fragile, finite source, farmers around the Monterey Bay have also practiced conservation wherever possible.
“They’ve faced many droughts and have learned how to keep their farms going,” said Brendt Haddad, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz who is an expert in water management.
Monterey Bay farmers have also been conserving their precious resource by radically altering the way they water their crops.
Instead of flooding a crop several times each season — a common practice in the Central Valley — an overwhelming majority of local farms now use drip irrigation. The technique delivers a drink directly to plants through a drip line, placed at or right above a root system.
Peixoto estimates that the amount of water used to flood a single crop just once can nourish a drip-irrigated crop from seeds to harvest.
A handful of local farmers barely irrigate at all. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s possible to grow crops such as tomatoes and winter squash on some coastal farms thanks to the high moisture content in the air and soil. Called “dry farming,” the technique requires only one or two initial waterings to help plants get established before the water supply is cut off.
Dry farmers say that a heavy dose of mulch helps to retain enough soil moisture to sustain crops through the growing season. The technique not only saves fields worth of water, but can also improve the taste of crops.
The rich earth at Live Earth Farms is treasured and nourished. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Dirty Girl’s Schirmer says if you sink your teeth into a dry-farmed tomato, you’ll find it to be sweeter and a lot more flavorful. Ten of Dirty Girl’s 40 acres are set aside for dry-farmed tomatoes, and he hasn’t watered them since June.
Many Monterey Bay farmers now routinely rotate their crops and give plots some time off between plantings to prolong the health of soil.
“We maintain a high level of organic matter in our soil because it holds more moisture,” said Tom Broz, owner of Live Earth Farm in Corralitos. “There’s less need for irrigation. It’s like a sponge.”
Workers weed a field at Live Earth Farms where cover crops — plants like buckwheat or clover that are left to cover soil instead of being harvested — support the farm’s ecosystem. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel)
UCSC’s Haddad says one big reason that both small and corporate farms on the Central Coast have enthusiastically embraced water conservation and recycling is simple economics.
“If the farmers were seeing their wells turning into saltwater, then banks would assume that those farms are going to go bankrupt” and not lend them money, Haddad said. “So sustainable water contributes to the long-run financial viability of the farms.”
Avoiding thirsty crops
By using plants that fit the climate, Haddad and other water management experts say, Central Coast farms have helped them avoid the ruthless consequences of extreme drought.
Although the Monterey Bay area’s climate allows for growing pretty much everything under the sun, farmers are initiating conservation from the ground up by growing drought-tolerant varietals.
Unlike in the Central Valley, almond orchards that require heavy watering aren’t popping up in the Monterey Bay area. Instead, many farmers focus on crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower with relatively low water needs.
Broz, who sits on the board of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, typically leaves some areas of his 60-acre farm fallow because they aren’t productive enough to justify irrigating. And he says he prefers to sow cover crops — plants such as buckwheat or clover that are left to cover soil instead of being harvested — to support his farm’s ecosystem. Similarly, farmers often take acreage out of commission during drier months to focus their watering efforts on plots that are better suited to the weather.
Despite the sustained efforts of local farmers and water managers, keeping the level of water basins at a healthy level remains a daunting task.
Few of the region’s wells have gone dry in recent years. But as the effects of climate change continue to grow, the uncertainties associated with farming grow as well. Extreme heat, reduced rainfall and wildfires all promise to become permanent features across the Golden State.
Most local farmers, however, seem optimistic. They say they’d like to reverse —- and not just stop — the overdrafting of aquifers. And water management experts such as Haddad say the farmers of the Central Coast are well-suited to persevere through constant innovation.
Broz says as farmers adapt, they need to support each other and not allow a divide to form.
“Farmers are almost like an endangered species,” Broz said. “It’s important that we don’t pit one type of farmer against another. We need to look at the system as a whole and work together toward something we can aim for.”
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