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Home > Feature Articles > Agriculture & Organic Production

Agriculture, Water and Energy -- California's Three-Legged Stool

Farm water isn't simply a pond or river. It's management of a complex ecosystem.

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California water conservation in watersheds California farmers use 43 percent of the state's developed water supply. The largest user of this water is the environment at 46 percent while homes/businesses use the remaining 11 percent. Sit back and learn about some of the challenging and exciting changes happening in California agriculture. These water related issues will affect urban water supplies, food in the grocery store, jobs in rural areas...that trickle into urban areas...and the quality of our environment. Water knowledge is as important when you go to the polls as when you go to the grocery store!

Agricultural water management for water, energy, wildlife and environmental conservation

The California Farm Water Coalition was formed in 1989 in the midst of a seven-year drought.

Guess what, we're there again.

Roughly 4,500 farmers statewide depend on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where a judge limited pumping in August to protect the endangered delta smelt and its biodiverse, functional habitat. That ruling came in response to a 2005 lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council that claimed the massive pumps used by the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project were driving the tiny fish to extinction.

The result is that California agriculture will have to change. Every Californian is going to see a different set of fruits and vegetables in the supermarket next spring.

This change is reminiscent of the early 1990s, when Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act which rebalanced the amount of water available for irrigation and habitat for wildlife.

But times are also different. More of the state's agricultural acreage now is dedicated to tree and vine crops, which are more profitable than previous reliance on annual field crops, but offer farmers less flexibility in dry years because they can't go without water.

Plantings of almonds, wine grapes and pistachios, some of the state's primary permanent crops, increased by more than a third to 680,000 acres between 1996 and 2005, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Annual field crops such as snap beans, artichokes and garlic lost planting space.

The water cuts aren't hitting all farmers equally. In the western San Joaquin Valley, which has no other above ground water sources, reductions will cause some farmers to lose as much as two-thirds of their water allotment.

Growers in Southern California, who are not entirely dependent on water from the delta, will lose less than a third of their expected irrigation supply. But many of those SoCal growers are also dealing with fallout from the recent wildfires and powerful winds that tore through the region, causing at least $71 million in agricultural damage in San Diego, Ventura and Riverside counties, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Some farmers decide they can make more money selling their water allocation than they would using it to irrigate crops. Speculative business meets demand at a price.

The California Farm Water Coalition was formed to increase public awareness of agriculture’s efficient use of water and promote the industry’s environmental sensitivity regarding water.

The San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary

A maze of tributaries, sloughs and islands, the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary (Bay-Delta) is the largest estuary on the West Coast. It is a haven for plants and wildlife, supporting over 750 plants and animal species. The Bay-Delta includes over 738,000 acres on five counties.

The Bay Delta is critical to California's environment and economy, supplying drinking water for over two-thirds of Californians and irrigation water for over 7 million acres of the most highly productive agricultural land in the world.

Water Management and the Environment in California

In recent years traditional agricultural water management has dramatically improved to take into consideration the effects on the environment. California agriculture has taken monumental steps to improve how precious resources are managed with respect to water conservation, fish passage, wildlife habitat, and energy consumption.

The Agricultural Water Management Council is dedicated to promoting positive water management activities that benefit our environment and also allow farmers to continue to grow safe, healthy food for generations to come.

California's Central Valley Flyway

The Central Valley rice lands are essential to many wetland dependent species including waterfowl, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

Rice fields are flooded for nine months of the year, a five month growing season and four months in the winter. Post-harvest, or winter flooding of the rice fields became a common cultural practice after legislation passed to phase out rice straw burning in order to improve air quality. These flooded fields have become critical to the annual bird migration known as the Pacific Flyway. More than 60 percent of the migrating birds winter in the Central Valley’s 500,000 acres of flooded rice fields.

Lundberg Family Farms has been growing rice in harmony with nature. Lundberg Farms is a family-owned and operated farm committed to growing organic rice and rice products in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California. Lundberg’s eco-positive farming ethic has guided its soil enrichment, water management, and wetlands preservation initiatives. Renewable energy is a natural fit for the company.

Seasonal Power Banking with Renewable Energy

Water is closely connected with energy because so much of our agricultural and urban water supply is pumped long distances. Power is a significant component of the cost of every gallon of water used in California.

Investing in solar energy pays big dividends for the environment and economically for farmers. Lundberg Farms 200,000 Kw solar collectors provide enough energy to power their on-site drying and storage facilities. Their power banking agreement with PG&E allows them to sell power to the utility during the summer when it is needed most by consumers and in-turn, Lundberg Farms buys power in the fall and winter when they need it most and prices are low.

Lundberg Farms represents the largest U.S. renewable energy purchase by an agribusiness and is one of the largest renewable energy acquisitions in California. Lundberg is a partner in the Green Power Partnership, a new voluntary EPA program working to standardize green power procurement.

Native Plants and Wildlife Habitat

As an advocate for native species, farmer John Anderson led his local water district, Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, to establish a program planting native grasses and initiate environmentally sensitive practices for maintenance for portions of the 160 miles of canal banks.

John Anderson is owner of Hedgerow Farms located in Yolo County specializing in native plants and grasses. Concerned about the declining wildlife habitat, Anderson began applying his native farm edge vegetation practices in 1990 to the District canals that run through his farm. The standard management practice used to maintain canal banks and levee berms is to keep them free of vegetation generally through the application of chemical herbicides. These ditches left unsprayed or unmanaged rapidly become vegetated with exotic species and non-natives, which are unacceptable to farming.

This biodiversity-based management of canal maintenance provides numerous benefits to the District and the environment. The District has found applying vegetative bank techniques have the potential to reduce the labor and maintenance of fixing eroded areas as well as the cost of multiple herbicide applications, while the environmental benefits improve water quality while the perennial grasses, sedges and rushes provide wildlife habitat, protect the banks from erosion and suppress propagation of noxious weeds, while increasing the abundance of native species and restoring biodiversity.

San Joaquin River Coalition of Landowners

Central California Irrigation District is part of the Westside San Joaquin River Watershed Coalition that encompasses over 550,000 acres on the west side of the San Joaquin River in Fresno, Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties.

The coalition organizes landowners in the region to share monitoring and reporting of rivers and creeks, apply for grants, and work cooperatively toward improving water quality.

The coalition is a local collaborative effort that includes the Natural Resource Conservation Service, farm bureaus, and pesticide and herbicide applicators among other agribusinesses. Their purpose is to enhance water quality, water reliability and the environment that will also promote the long term viability of farming.

The coalition partners are committed to scientifically based watershed management.

Much of the coalition’s outreach is directed to pesticide and herbicide vendors and applicators about the contaminants in the water, sources and impacts of waste in discharges, and farming practices that can help avoid pollutants entering the water leaving agricultural lands.

For 20 years the district has administered its own grant and loan program for its farmers with cost share grants for any infrastructure that will help conserve water, whether for tailwater return systems, lining ditches, or even converting from sprinkler to subsurface drip. As a result thousands of acre-feet of water have been conserved over the last decade.

Drip Irrigation is Working

Stamoules Produce Co. is a leading producer of vegetables in the area…growing, harvesting, packaging and selling all of the produce it grows on 12,000 acres. Half of the acreage is doublecropped; bringing the total to 18,000 crop acres. Drip irrigation tape has been installed underground across the 12,000 acres and control of the system is accomplished via radio frequency from a small office atop a building in the farm’s shop and equipment yard.

Farming without drip irrigation would take away the competitive advantage Stamoules enjoys in the produce business. Drip irrigation consistently uses less water, less fertilizer, and find tillage and ground preparation less costly. In addition, yields are higher and the quality of the product grown is better.

Drip irrigation pays, it doesn’t cost!

Coachella Valley Refines Water Management Practices

Farmers in the Coachella Valley are already some of the most advanced farmers in the world regarding irrigation technology and management and the conservation program by Coachella Valley Water District provided the education they needed to meet the new environmental agriculture demands.

Weekly meetings were held covering a wide range of topics including irrigation scheduling, salinity management and irrigation system maintenance.

The program challenged the farmers to analyze their water management practices, especially in the area of crop water needs and how best to meet those needs. Some farmers discovered that their irrigation sets could be reduced in time and still satisfy their crop needs

Water Management Feast or Famine

Water in California is often a matter of feast or famine; in some years there is plenty of water, often more than can be used. Conversely in dry years there is not enough. A good water management strategy recognizes these characteristics and stores water in wet years for use in dry years. One method of increasing available water supply is the construction of surface reservoirs. However, the high costs, political pressures and environmental concerns make new surface facilities a longer term solution. Groundwater banking and recharge is an alternative that provides immediate water storage and when managed properly, can also create habitat and conservation opportunities.

Groundwater Recharging Through Habitat Conservation

In 1995 Authority members embarked on the development of a groundwater recharge facility and water banking program. The Authority entered into a long term right-of-use agreement for 80 acres along Deer Creek owned by one of the member Districts. Using their own staff and equipment, the Authority members transformed the land into recharge basins to capture the abundant Sierra spring runoff.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation funding resulted in expanding the complex to almost 300 acres. The grant provided for new basin construction, re-vegetation, and educational opportunities to promote the environmental benefits of the groundwater recharge facility. Over 100,000 yards of soil was excavated to create a more natural, wildlife-friendly area. New ponds featured wildlife-friendly contoured levees, nesting islands and native vegetation. Over 35,000 acre-feet of water has been recharged at the Deer Creek Complex.

The Deer Creek Complex is considered to be very successful. It demonstrates the joint effort between agriculture and the environmental community to foster a relationship of cooperation.

Along with the Audubon Society, the Authority has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Waterfowl Association and the Soil Conservation Service. The Deer Creek Complex has received national recognition for promotion of sound water management through groundwater recharge while providing habitat for a variety of native and migratory birds and land species.

Semitropic Water Storage District Develops Renewable Energy

Semitropic established a groundwater bank in the late 1990s. Over 1 million acre-feet of groundwater storage capacity is available. There are six partners participating in the Semitropic Water Bank who have delivered approximately 800,000 acrefeet of water to the District for recharge into the underground.

The new plans for expansion of the water bank increase the District’s demand for energy. Being a conjunctive use district, Semitropic depends heavily on pumps not only to put water in the aquifer but also to draw water out. Energy demand in the District is the highest during the summer irrigation season—but so are the energy rates. The District needed to find alternative energy sources to offset rapidly rising energy costs.

The District contracted Shell Solar Industries to construct and install the 1,920 solar panels that stretch out over four and half acres. Shell designed a single-axis tracking system specifically for this project. The panels move with the sun throughout the day to maximize energy production. Almost five percent of the District’s total energy needs are met by the solar plant.

Utility incentive programs provide the financial incentive to help pay the cost of on-site electric generating systems utilizing solar, wind, fuel cell, micro turbine or co-generation systems.

Annually, the solar panels are projected to deliver 1.7 million kWh of electricity; the amount of energy needed to deliver 10,000 acre-feet of water to its customers.

The District plans to install more of the solar technology, which may someday include a hydrogen generator fueled by the solar system. The fuel created by the generator will ultimately power a fleet of hydrogen vehicles, reducing fuel costs and making for a cleaner environment.

New River Pollution Solutions with Constructed Wetlands

A grassroots effort addresses the pollution of the New River. In 1997 the Citizen’s Congressional Task Force was formed to improve the quality and wildlife habitat on the New River through the development of constructed wetlands.

Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems that support vigorous plant growth and a broad variety of animal life. Constructed wetlands are a simple, inexpensive and natural remedy to improve water quality.

The New River originates 20 miles south of the Mexican border and meanders across the international border through agricultural fields until reaching its destination, the Salton Sea in California. It was formed in the early 1900s when the Colorado River flooded.

The Salton Sea is an important wetland that supports a diverse population of waterfowl and fish species. The sea is of particular significance given the decline of wetlands in California.

Wetlands act as a natural solution to treat polluted waters through settling and the actions of bacteria and wetland plants. Constructed wetlands have several key components, soil and drainage materials such as pipes and gravel, water, plants, and micro-organisms. Constructed wetlands differ from natural wetlands in several ways:

  • They remain constant in size
  • They are not directly connected with groundwater
  • They accommodate greater volumes of sediment
  • They more quickly develop the desired diversity of plants and associated organisms.

The result of these innovative projects is that agricultural drainage is processed naturally through the constructed wetland ecosystem. This provides water for wildlife and allows cleaner water to enter the New and Alamo rivers, protecting the plant and animal species in those waterways. Imperial has three additional constructed wetland sites planned for 2007 and 2008.

RESOURCES:

Download A Smaller Footprint by Agricultural Water Management Council

Agricultural Water Management Council
717 K Street, Suite 417
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: (916) 441-7868

Fax: (916) 441-7864
www.agwatercouncil.org

California Farm Water Coalition
5999 Freeport Boulevard
Sacramento, CA 95822
Phone: (916) 391-5030
Fax: (916) 391-5044
E-mail: info@farmwater.org
www.cfwc.com



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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