Drought Can’t Dry Up California Farmers’ Goodwill–But Will It Be Enough?

In our latest story, “How One California Farmer is Battling the Worst Drought in 1,200 years,” reporter Sena Christian tells the story of Cannon Michael, a Central Valley farmer who led a conservation and water sharing effort that transferred 4.4 billion gallons of water for his neighbors’ parched fields.

In the process, Christian describes a water-allocation system in California that is poorly managed and dangerously overburdened, and raises serious questions about the future of agriculture in one of the nation’s most important farming region. The piece is online today with our media partner Ensia.

Last spring, when California halted water allocations to farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, westside farmers like Michael, with longstanding seniority in the allocation system, were among the few who could still irrigate their fields.

Michael, who owns the 10,500-acre Bowles Farm Company and has a history of agricultural activism, refused to watch as other growers’ fields went dry. “Michael saw frustration and heartbreak all around him,” Christian writes. “Workers were laid off, land for row crops fallowed and high-profit almond orchards ripped out because they were too water thirsty. These were his friends and colleagues, and the men and women responsible for supplying much of the country’s tomatoes, carrots, grapes, apricots, and asparagus and 80 percent of the world’s almonds.”

Michael and a handful of other farmers with water rights voluntarily implemented conservation measures on their properties and took land out of operation, then tapped a reservoir to which they had rights. But rather than use this water, they transferred 13,500 acre-feet (4.4 billion gallons) of water to eastside farmers who were going dry at an affordable price. The group charged $250 an acre-foot when the going price was between $1,000-$2,000 per acre-foot. In other words, they could have used their priority status to cash in to the tune of $27 million.

But ineffective water-management is as much a problem as the lack of rain. Drawing from a UC Davis report published last August, Christian reports that “the state’s water right allocations now total five times more surface water than is available in a good rainfall year, and regulators struggle to figure out whose supplies to cut during a drought because of inaccurate reporting from water appropriators and the complicated water-rights system.” The San Joaquin River alone is 861 percent allocated, leaving farmers, cities, and industrial users competing for the water.

“[The drought] is not easy,” one farmer told Christian. “It’s very complex, it’s very emotional and I just say a little prayer for my grandkids that they get to farm one day.”

You can read the full story at Ensia and here on our website.

Sena Christian is a 2014 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Photographs were taken by Sonya Doctorian, a Denver-based photo and video journalist who is also a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism.