If you’ve ever picked up pears at Sacramento’s largest farmers market, it’s a good bet you’ve bought them from Jeff McCormack of Walnut Grove. His family has been farming on land along the Sacramento River Delta for 125 years.
"We've been in business since 1896 ... fourth-generation, my son is the fifth,” said McCormack, standing in front of his stall at the Certified Farmers’ Market at Arden Fair Mall on a recent Sunday morning.
The family grows 600 acres of pears, 50 acres of cherries and about 90 acres of wine grapes. And since they’ve been around so long and their property borders the Sacramento River, they have senior water rights to that water, dubbed “pre-1914 riparian rights.”
Earlier this month, McCormack was among more than 4,300 farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed who received letters from the state warning that they may be cut off from diverting river water to their crops.
"If they cut us off, our pears and grapes are going to suffer,” said McCormack. “Everything's going to suffer. So yeah, this is pretty scary.
"All of us in the delta are pretty much pre-1914, so we have the riparian rights but apparently, if there's just not enough water to flush the salt out, they're going to curtail us.”
The State Water Resources Control Board is telling farmers of impending water unavailability that may continue until winter rains come.
"Who knows when the rainy season's going to start again,” said McCormack. “By then it'll be too late to salvage orchards. In other words, the trees could die or be very stressed out, it could affect next year's crop as well.
"That's the worst case scenario, that they curtail us. In the letter they mention that ‘if you don't stop diverting, you will be subject to fines up to $1,000 a day, per diversion, per pump.' We have probably 12 or 15 pumps."
The main reason farmers are facing curtailment is because the drought is depleting California's reservoirs which feed into rivers, streams and bays.
Scientists say this year's drought is hotter and drier than previous ones. That means the water in California's reservoirs is evaporating faster. And that’s making it harder for farmers to grow crops. It also makes it difficult for endangered fish species to survive.
“For some of the major reservoirs, they are lower than they were at this time of the year during 2014 and 2015 which were the worst years of the previous drought,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. “Basically we're seeing, in the second year of this drought, the same kind of low reservoir levels that we saw in the third year of the previous drought."
Consequently, the state's more than 1,500 reservoirs are 50% lower than they should be this time of year.
“This year is extraordinarily dry,” said Lund. “This is the third driest year on record for Northern California in terms of precipitation — and it's warm. So we're going to see that the cold water behind those dams does not remain cold very far downstream and that's going to be problematic for some of the salmon as well."
Salmon need cold water from the bottom of the reservoirs to spawn. And the San Francisco Bay needs fresh water from the reservoirs to keep out the salt water that harms freshwater fish.
“I’m particularly worried about Shasta being so low that they’re unlikely to have enough cold water to get the winter-run salmon through the spawning season.”
The water level at one key reservoir, Lake Oroville, could reach historic lows by late August.
With no water from the reservoirs, the only water left for farmers is groundwater which is not always the best for agricultural irrigation.
“The reservoirs are effectively empty and the only water left in creeks is groundwater, or basically seepage from the hillside's natural seepage, and that's just much, much higher in minerals,” said Michael Smith, who grows fruits and vegetables at Spreadwing Farm in the Yolo County town of Rumsey.
“The quality of that groundwater is really an issue for certain crops. So we've decided, for example, we're just not going to plant fall vegetables this year because we don't have the water to be able to irrigate it."
Smith has been thinking a lot about crops that are well adapted to the desert-like conditions California farmers are now finding themselves in.
"The figs and the pomegranates are doing great. I think olives do great, there's probably other desert-adaptive crops,” said Smith. “But there are certain things that are major issues and I think moving forward into the future, where it's very possible that we'll have a lot more years like this, I expect that farmers in this area are going to be reconsidering what it makes sense to grow."
California farmers won't be able to use as much groundwater to irrigate crops during the current dry spell than they may have in previous years. During the last drought in 2014, the state enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The law requires local water managers to draft plans for helping groundwater basins come into balance by the year 2040.
"So in this drought, we will see some more attention to what is being pumped because now it's part of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan of some agencies," said Josué Medellín-Azuara of UC Merced's Water Systems Management Lab during an interview on CapRadio’s Insight with Vicki Gonzalez.
"Don't get me wrong, when there's a drought, groundwater is there to help to replace the surface water losses,” said Medellín-Azuara. “The problem is that it has been over-drafted and that overdraft needs to be reduced or eliminated by 2040."
Irv Masumoto owns Masumoto Orchards and grows peaches, plums, nectarines and other fruit on about 30 acres in Sutter County. He’s been farming for about 50 years. The 74-year-old is worried about groundwater supplies.
"If the weather turns hot like it has been, there's going to be more guys pumping water because there's going to be more fruit coming in at that time," said Masumoto. "I know the state's going to cut back on water deliveries and if everybody starts depending on pumps, the aquifer is going to get lower and pretty soon it won't be worth pumping it out.
"I like farming, I like to keep busy,” said Masumoto. “But if the water situation comes down to a point where it's going to be a problem, then maybe I will retire. I don't want to go through all this stuff, it's too much trouble and I’d like to make life a little easier."
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