Conservation ethics enables Monterey Bay farmers to thrive during droughts – Monterey Herald

2021-11-22 08:28:35 By : Mr. Toney Ding

Despite record rainfall in October, farmers in the Central Valley were still shocked by the sharp drop in water supply when the drought intensified last spring. Many farmers are forced to cut down crops that can no longer be irrigated. As the water wells dry up before their eyes, some people have doubled or tripled their groundwater extraction.

However, in the Monterey Bay area, crops have thirst-quenching leaves facing the sun. No alarm was issued for the water level of the well, and the threat of water supply interruption has basically subsided.

"I don't know anyone is having water problems now," said Joe Schirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Produce, a 40-acre organic farm in Watsonville.

In response to the need to prevent seawater from infiltrating into the aquifers in the area, the Monterey Bay Water Agency, as well as small farms and large corporate farms, have been actively protecting water basins from seawater intrusion for a quarter of a century. Expensive water recycling projects enable farmers to reduce their dependence on groundwater, because conservation-conscious planting methods and cutting-edge irrigation techniques reduce water waste.

"We know the importance of (water), which is why we are so proactive in promoting and managing resources," said Dick Pescioto of Lakeside Organic Garden, a family-owned Pajaro Valley farm that grows a variety of Organic vegetables.

In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the threat of seawater intrusion enveloped farmers on the Central Coast like a lasting shadow. They knew that if they let the water level in the aquifer fall below sea level, seawater would continue to seep into their wells and eventually destroy them.

Horror stories began to appear in the 90s. A grower at Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville saw the artichoke and strawberry fields withered when sea water penetrated the well. However, extensive improvements to local sewage treatment plants have allowed the highly treated sewage to be safely used for crops. Seawater intrusion slowed down and crops recovered.

Sean Pezzini, a fourth-generation artichoke farmer at Pezzini Farms in Castroville, said that growers in northern Monterey County are alert to seawater intrusion. However, he said that today artichoke farmers have little to complain about when it comes to water.

Pezzini said that despite the drought, the artichoke harvest last spring was "very good, and the plants this fall look very healthy."

Since the pioneering use of recycled water for crops in the northern area of ​​the Salinas Valley 20 years ago, the movement to raise the water level of the aquifer has spread throughout the county.

Two years ago, a state-of-the-art water treatment facility north of Marina, costing $124 million, began transporting drinking water through an 8-mile-long pipeline that is now being injected into a Seaside well. Last year, customers in the Monterey Peninsula started drinking reclaimed water from taps mixed with existing groundwater.

Water management experts point out that farmers in the Central Valley are highly dependent on large-scale federal and state water projects, while farmers in Monterey County must rely on what nature provides them. But the lack of external water sources has promoted innovation and a deep commitment to conservation by farmers on the Central Coast.

"For more than 20 years, they have been early adopters of drip irrigation, soil moisture sensors, and other data-driven agricultural water management methods to minimize soil evaporation and other water uses that do not directly benefit crops," NASA Ames Said Forrest Melton, a senior research scientist at the branch campus and executive director of the Monterey Bay Agricultural Education and Research Center at Colorado State University.

"One thing that many people don't know is that we don't have imported water here. Our supply is in coastal areas," said Michael Kahn, Irrigation and Water Resources Consultant at the Monterey County Office of the University of California Cooperative Extension Department. "Therefore, careful management is required to avoid excessive pumping" and allow more seawater to invade the wells in the Salinas Valley.

Farmers on the Central Coast usually do not inundate crops multiple times per season, which is a common practice in the Central Valley. In contrast, most local farms now use drip irrigation. This technology delivers beverages directly to the plants through a drip irrigation line placed on or directly above the root system.

Peixoto estimates that the amount of water used to irrigate a single crop at a time can nourish the entire process of drip irrigation crops from seed to harvest.

A few local farmers do not irrigate at all. This sounds incredible, but due to the high moisture content in the air and soil, it is possible to grow tomatoes and winter melon crops on some coastal farms. This technique, called "dry farming," requires only one or two initial waterings to help plants establish themselves before water is cut off.

Drought farmers say that a large amount of mulch helps maintain enough soil moisture to maintain the crop throughout the growing season. This technology can not only save water resources in the field, but also improve the taste of crops.

Dirty Girl’s Schirmer said that if you bite your teeth into a dried-grown tomato, you will find it sweeter and tastier. Ten acres of Dirty Girl's 40 acres are used to grow tomatoes on dry land, and he has not watered them since June.

Many Monterey Bay farmers now rotate their crops regularly and give the plots some time between plantings to extend the health of the soil.

"We maintain a high level of organic matter in the soil because it contains more water," said Tom Broz, owner of Coralitos Live Earth Farm. "The need for irrigation has decreased. It's like a sponge."

Brendt Haddad, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and an expert in water management, said that one of the important reasons for the enthusiastic acceptance of water conservation and recycling on the Central Coast is the simple economy. study.

Haddad said: "If farmers see their wells turn into salt water, then the bank will assume that these farms will go bankrupt" instead of lending them money. "So sustainable water contributes to the long-term financial viability of the farm."

Haddad and other water management experts say that by using plants suitable for the climate, farms on the Central Coast have helped them avoid the cruel consequences of extreme drought.

Although the climate in the Monterey Bay area allows for almost everything to be grown in the sun, farmers here are protecting from scratch by planting drought-tolerant varieties.

Unlike the Central Valley, almond orchards that require a lot of watering did not appear in the Monterey Bay area. Instead, many farmers focus on crops such as Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, which have relatively low water requirements.

Broz is a board member of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency. He usually leaves some areas of his 60-acre farm fallow because they are not productive enough to justify irrigation. He said he prefers to sow cover crops—plants like buckwheat or clover, which are used to cover the soil rather than being harvested—to support his farm’s ecosystem. Similarly, farmers often stop using the land during the drier months and focus their watering efforts on plots that are more suitable for the weather.

Despite the continuous efforts of local farmers and water managers, keeping the water level in the basin at a healthy level is still a difficult task.

In recent years, oil wells in the area have hardly dried up. But as the impact of climate change continues to expand, so does the uncertainty associated with agriculture. Extreme heat, reduced rainfall and wildfires are expected to become permanent features throughout the Golden State.

However, most local farmers seem to be optimistic. They said they wanted to reverse—not just stop—the overdraft of the aquifer. Water resources management experts say that farmers on the Central Coast are well suited to persist through continuous innovation.

Broz said that as farmers adapt, they need to support each other and not allow disagreements.

"The farmer is almost like an endangered species," Broz said. “The important thing is that we don’t let one type of farmer confront another. We need to treat the entire system as a whole and work together to achieve what we can achieve.”

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