Home » Cover Story » Every Drop Counts

Every Drop Counts

 

Every Drop Counts

Every Drop Counts

Western Farmers Trying to Cope with Serious Drought

Blame it on weather patterns, urban expansion, water rights, battles or politics. No matter where you live in California or Arizona, the hottest issue today for cotton farmers comes down to one topic – a historic drought.

When you have a situation in California where some farmers are paying 50 or even 100 times more for water, it demonstrates the severity of the crisis. If a farmer lives close to a reliable water source, he’s one of the lucky ones. If he depends on water from a watershed affected by the current drought, the odds are good that a dreaded water cutoff notice has already been issued.

Simply put, California farmers must survive with a lot less available water as they deal with the current crisis. Many hoped that a good snowpack this past winter would solve part of the problem, but that didn’t happen. The continuing drought and weather patterns put the brakes on anything resembling normal water supplies for the season.

Drought To Remember

From a historical standpoint, the current drought in the country’s largest agricultural state is in a category all by itself. The U.S. Drought Monitor, which tracks weather trends across the country, says that the entire state of California is in a severe drought for the first time since 2000.

survivedroughtAccording to U.S. climatologist Mark Svoboda, the current drought is a once in-a-generation event. Nothing compares to it with the possible exception of 1976-77. But, since then, the state’s population has nearly doubled while water supplies have remained about the same.

California producer Don Cameron, general manager of the Terranova Ranch 25 miles southwest of Fresno, farms approximately 7,000 acres, with a mix of conventional, organic and biotech crops, including organic pima cotton, upland cotton, seed product, tomatoes, biotech alfalfa, corn and a diversity of other annual crops. Perennial crops grown include organic and conventional walnuts, conventional wine grapes, almonds, pistachios, olives and prunes. In all, 26 crops are grown on the farm.

“This is our third year of drought,” he says. “Some farmers have put in wells to somehow survive the situation. Even the ones who normally receive no less than 60 percent of their allocations are down to 40 percent. We’ve never seen conditions this bad.” Cameron also says the crisis is made worse because of so many state environmental regulations. And, even though an El Niño weather pattern might bring more rainfall in the coming months, it would be too late to help this year’s crops.

irrigationDesperate Measures

How will cotton farmers and others get through this year? Cameron says most will “do whatever they have to do to hang on, and hope for a better situation next year.” He adds that farmers already are doing everything they can to survive by using drip irrigation and minimizing water use on anything grown on their land. The real answer for next year is a heavy snowpack and plenty of rainfall throughout the state.

Veteran California Extension cotton specialist Bob Hutmacher echoes Cameron’s comments. He says it has been a “chilling experience” to see the drop in cotton acreage this year, and it is all due to drought and serious lack of available water.

Taking care of feed needs for the dairies and protection of the producers investments in perennial crops such as trees (almonds, walnuts, pistachios) and grapes (wine, table and raisin) has really had a huge impact on planted acres of our typical crops such as cotton,” says Hutmacher.

Similar Problem In Arizona

irrigation2In neighboring Arizona, the water crisis is similar but somewhat different, according to state Extension specialist Randy Norton. If a cotton farmer is in the western part of the state and close to the Colorado River, he probably has enough water. However, 2014 is the first year for a reduction in water coming down from the lower basin states.

“Unless something changes, there could very well be restrictions enacted in 2016,” says Norton. “This obviously would be unprecedented. It is pretty serious and will affect farmers.”

How serious? Norton says Lake Mead, located on the Colorado River and the largest reservoir in the country, is at 40 percent capacity, and now there is concern about having enough water capacity to generate electricity. The lake hasn’t been at full capacity since 1983 due to a combination of drought and increased water demand. Depending on where a farmer is located in Arizona, there has been some kind of drought in the state for 16 years. For that reason, Norton says farmers have anticipated that water restrictions might tighten at some point in the future.

If those restrictions become reality, farmers would have to decide whether to put in more sub-surface drip irrigation in certain areas. Or, they might leave some acreage fallow and shift crops to another location. “Sometimes the water problems seem to get lost in the shuffle in Arizona,” says Norton. “It seems that way when you compare our situation to California.” Arizona farmers are already making plans to become more efficient in their water use. For instance, is it better to use a majority of that water upfront to develop a structure on the plant? That approach is being studied. “Basically, it comes down to this,” says Norton. “No matter how challenging this issue is, we have to keep fighting the good fight and not give up.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767- 4020 or thorton@onegrower.com.