Water resistance

"Water resistance" Continued...

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

VIDAK: “… the liberal elites believe we shouldn’t even be here.”
Matt Purciel
VIDAK: “… the liberal elites believe we shouldn’t even be here.”
Yet in Sacramento, that common sense is hard to find. Environmentalists complain of the damage dams and irrigation systems have done to the ecosystem of the San Joaquin River, and in 2006 won a lawsuit to restore water to a 60-mile dry stretch of river to boost a Chinook salmon population that hasn’t been around since the dam was created in the 1940s. In 2008, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report found the delta smelt was threatened by pumping into the water systems, and has since allowed more than 81 million gallons of water to flow out to the ocean. California growers sued, and while a lower court called the biological opinion “arbitrary and capricious,” the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmentalists in a decision announced in March.

“The power base in Sacramento, the liberal elites, believe we shouldn’t even be here,” Vidak said. “They are so far removed from where their food comes from. … It comes from a store, water comes from the tap.”

Unemployment in the four counties Vidak represents ranges from 13 to 17 percent. Not just farm workers, but truck drivers, agriculture equipment businesses, packaging companies, and grocery stockers are losing jobs. And the problem spreads further than the farming communities in the valley: The state of California could lose as much as $5 billion of the $44.7 billion agriculture industry this year, according to the California Farm Water Coalition. While the effects of the drought on food prices are yet unknown, a recent Arizona State University study predicted food prices could increase as much as 34 percent for a head of lettuce and 18 percent for tomatoes.

Vidak is working to put a water bond on the November ballot to create more water storage, ensure farming communities get clean drinking water, and protect the delta water supply. But even if it passes, it could take five to seven years before farmers see the effects. And Greg Wegis, a fifth generation farmer in Bakersfield, needs that water now.

To keep his almond, pistachio, and pomegranate crops growing on his 2,400-acre family farm, Wegis will spend $1.3 million this year to drill three new wells on his land. Farmers are so desperate to find groundwater that drilling rigs often have a six month to one year wait list. Other farmers spend a fortune buying water from districts with senior water rights or growers with extra water—Icardo said that while rates used to be around $200 or $300 per acre-foot (the amount of water needed to flood an acre with a foot of water), it now costs $1,200 per acre-foot: “Water has become gold.”

The water from wells has its own issues. Groundwater is higher in sodium and boron, requiring treatment, and is at times unusable. As farmers lean more heavily on underground aquifers, the water is being depleted faster than it’s being replenished. Vidak, Wegis, and Icardo all mentioned the looming battle over state-regulated groundwater. Currently the groundwater is managed locally, but in April, a Southern California state senator introduced a water conservation bill that would allow the state water board to step in when local agencies don’t stop over-pumping.

Wegis is frustrated by how environmentalists portray farmers as water hogs or chemical abusers. In actuality, California’s long-time water problems have forced farmers to invent new ways to conserve as much water as possible. For instance, rather than flooding a field with water, farmers use drip irrigation by running the water through a pipe poked with holes so that water, along with needed pesticides, is directed only at the plant’s roots.

As the drought worsens, Wegis is expanding the family business beyond farming to include agriculture service companies. He hopes to pass on the farm to the next generation, including his 5- and 8-year-old daughters. But at this point, he’s not sure what will be left: “We’re afraid land values may be affected by not having water to farm with. … I’m extremely concerned about the future when water is an issue.”

Angela Lu
Angela Lu

Angela is a reporter for WORLD Magazine who lives and works in Taiwan. She enjoys cooking, reading, and storytelling. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela818.


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