When groundwater pumping isn’t an option

Jan 27, 2016 Diane Nelson University of California, Davis
In many areas of California growers can't extract fresh water from the subsurface.

Grower Jim Jasper of Newman stands in a neighbor's fallow almond orchard. Jasper had to pull 450 acres of almonds due to lack of water.
In many areas of California, growers are pumping groundwater to offset surface water shortages, drilling more wells and pumping deeper into the earth to find fresh water.

But there are a variety of sediments underground, and some materials — such as sand and gravel — are better suited to store or pump water than others. In some areas, growers can’t extract fresh water from the subsurface due to salts or sediments with low permeability.

That’s the case at Stewart & Jasper Orchards in Newman, on the west side of California’s Central Valley, where Jim Jasper and his family have farmed for more than 70 years.

“Farmers in this area have tried to dig wells even 2,000 feet deep, and what little water we find is high in salt,” Jasper says. “We depend 100 percent on what little surface water we get.”

California’s drought is tightening its grip on agriculture, squeezing about 30 percent more workers and cropland out of production this year than in 2014, according to the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Surface-water shortages will reach nearly 8.7 million acre-feet in 2015, which will be mostly offset by groundwater pumping.

But as farmers like Jasper know, groundwater pumping has its limits: growers will idle roughly 542,000 acres of fertile land in 2015, on top of 425,000 acres idled in 2014.

“We had to pull 450 acres of almond trees,” Jasper says, walking in a fallow field. “Our neighbors are doing the same thing. When you have to spend up to $2,500 an acre-foot on water just to keep the trees alive, there’s no other way.”

Production is still relatively strong at Stewart & Jasper Orchards, but lack of water is taking its toll.

“I have 175 families that work with me — people who I care about deeply and who contribute tax dollars to our economy,” Jasper says. “Last year we had to lay off 15 percent of our employees, and this year it could
be 25 percent.”

Jasper worries what further cutbacks could do to the world’s richest food-producing region.

“If we don’t find a way to keep agriculture alive, we won’t be able to feed our people,” Jasper says. “We’ll have to depend on food from other countries with no control over safety, cost, or quality. Agriculture isn’t like a light switch. You can’t turn it off and on. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”

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