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California Drought: The Human, Natural Elements Up to Today

The Dirty '30s was a combination of human and natural conditions that came together to all but destroy the natural ecosystem of much of the Great Plains in the central U.S. Now, some say the same thing is happening in California, the very state where thousands of Plains farmers sought work and refuge during the worst of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Here, we'll look at some of the circumstances that have converged to create a problem that threatens not just profitability, but also a way of life for thousands of farmers in the Golden State.

California -- home to farms that grow as many as 400 different crops -- has been hammered by drought for the last three years, and weather experts expect more of the same this year, with just a fraction of the normal rainfall expected on top of an already-depleted snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, normally a major source of water for the state's agriculture. The result: A very water-dependent state is headed into the heart of spring and summer growing season with little to no water, and farmers now find themselves between a rock and a hard place as their urban neighbors are just starting to get a feel for the effort it will take to save every gallon possible.

"Almost all of the West Coast continues to have record-low snowpack," NRCS hydrologist David Garen said in early April. "March was warm and dry in most of the West; as a result, snow is melting earlier than usual."


California Farmers Preparing for Devastating Drought . . . Again

California has been in bad shape, moisturewise, for several years now, with drought slashing the amount of water available to that state's farmers and the crops they grow. Now, 2015 is shaping up to be way worse.

The state's water supply -- both surface and groundwater -- depends a great deal on that snowmelt, and some cities derive a vast majority of their water from surface water sources that it feeds. Alexander Coate is the general manager of the East Bay Municipal Utility Division in Oakland, and he says as much as 90% of his city's water supply comes from the Mokelumne River system. Right now, little snowmelt and next to no rain has left the East Bay's future in the hands of Mother Nature for about the next 70 days.

"Our supply situation probably looks better than it really is. We have probably 67% of our average in terms of storage, and about 50% of capacity," Coate said in early April. "What the numbers don't reflect is there's no snowpack that typically, this time of year, provides quite a bit of storage. Depending on what we get in April, May, and June, we could be in a critical situation with water levels short by 50,000 to 60,000 acre-feet."

That's about 16 to 20 billion gallons. In one urban area. This year.

Residents of California cities like Oakland are being asked to curtail water use by 20% to 25% in an effort to offset the growing deficit. Some say conservation efforts already underway have that goal within reach in the next few months. However, critics say taking actions like these is akin to shutting the barn door after the horse is already out. And thus far, that call to action isn't inspiring much change; in February, urban residents curbed usage by less than 3%, California Governor Jerry Brown announced in early April. Some say actions like these are simply too little, too late.

"You can't conserve your way out of something this drastic. No way," says Turlock, California, farmer and Turlock Irrigation District board of directors president Ron Macedo. "It's been 1970 since any new dam has been built here. Why hasn't there been anything done in all those years?"

While urban Californians are struggling to cut water use by anywhere near double-digits, the state's farmers like Macedo have already slashed their water use, so much so that some see themselves nearing the end of their rope.

Jake Wenger is on the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors and farms with his family in the northern Central Valley. The three years leading up to this spring have resulted in huge deficits of available irrigation water (a luxury farmers in his area have that those in the southern Central Valley don't), and the water that's left is both more expensive and heavily regulated. Usually allocated closer to 40 inches of water per acre each year by the state of California, Wenger says his acres will be allowed just 16 inches of water. It's far from enough: Jake's father Paul, who's also the California Farm Bureau president, says 16 inches is basically a joke.

"We went through six years of drought from 1986 to 1992. We had under 2 acre-feet of water just once. This year, we're limited to 16 inches. That's it," Paul says, adding that it's been a century since moisture was in such short supply in his area. "You can't grow a crop on 16 inches."

California's constitution outlines the state's authority to delegate its water resources based on the idea of "reasonable and beneficial use," including agriculture, environmental, and general residential use. Of those, farmers agree their sector of the economy and populace has already pared back water use the most, and that's likely to continue to be the case, at least through the next two years. Jake Wenger says he's already cut his farm's water use by 60% the last two years, and he expects this year's 16-inch allotment to be cut in half next year without major rainfall to make up some of the growing deficit. Still, he remains hopeful.

"You're kind of between a rock and a hard place. In a lot of ways, the decision's kind of made for you. Last year, we saw some big cutbacks, but guys were able to manage their way around the drought. A lot of guys learned they could make a crop on a lot less water than thought," Jake says. "The fact that last year, people were able to make it work, maybe this year isn't as bad as it could've been."

Though the Wengers see room for optimism that the end isn't as near, that optimism wanes as you move south through the Central Valley. Around Tulare, home of the World Ag Expo, the dairy industry is big. The drought poses a huge threat to the region's dairy farmers, some of whom have already spent years maximizing operation efficiency because of past market conditions that have forced it.

"We're third-generation dairy farmers. For years, we were a 400-cow dairy. As the water costs went up -- in the '60s, with surface and well water, it was $10 an acre-foot -- we found the only way to make it here was to grow. It became all about small margins and volume," says Greg Fernandes, who works with his family to operate Fern Oak Farms near Woodville in the central Central Valley. "Back in the old days in the '60s, we'd throw hay out to 400 cows. Now, we have one guy feeding 3,000 cows. This year, we contracted a lot of hay from Utah because we don't have the water or acres to grow the hay for our dairies here. Five years ago, we went solar, which at the current time is looking pretty good. We had to get efficient and grow."

Now, Fernandes, the Wengers, and other farmers move into the heat of the summer with a close eye on the forecast and worries that this year might be the last for their farms as they know them.

"Mother Nature has dealt us drought before," Paul Wenger says. "The real question is, can we adjust to drought?"

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