California is experiencing one of its driest years in history, and growers all over the state are searching for the best way to handle higher water costs and possible water use restrictions.
In February, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and called on residents to voluntarily decrease their water use by 20 percent. Federal officials announced that farmers would not receive water this year from the federally run Central Valley Project, which serves farms, homes and industry in California’s Central Valley, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area. State officials have reported that 17 communities are in danger of running out of water in the coming weeks.
As water rates climb and the need to water plants increases, for many growers the biggest challenge has been the growing cost of doing business. With residents being encouraged to cut back on their individual water use, growers have the added challenge of communicating to their customers that conservation doesn’t have to mean sacrificing lush landscaping.
The High Cost Of Watering
Eric Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Seed Co. in Escondido, Calif., is slightly optimistic. He says it’s still early and it’s hard to guess how the remainder of the season will go.
“There’s still a chance there’ll be enough water for use and that restrictions won’t be too draconian,” he says. “The worst part — the short term effect — is that I have to water in the winter time. It gets expensive. It’s increasing my costs.”
Typically, water rates go up in low water years and don’t come down when the region is out of drought.
“I’ve kind of been struggling just to meet the higher water costs (since the last drought in 2009),” he says.
Anderson says 20 years ago, water was $400 per acre foot, and now it averages over $2,000 per acre foot.
“I never (used to) worry about the cost of water. Now, after labor and rent, it’s my third highest operating cost,” he says.
Russell Fritz, owner of Grow Master Nursery in San Marcos, Calif., and president of the San Diego County Flower and Plant Association says the drought hasn’t hit his operation yet, aside from the increased cost. But he anticipates the high price to be just the beginning.
“We all need to be proactive in our approach on how to handle the water crisis, and it will need to start with being more efficient in our application methods,” Fritz says.
Some Growers Will Reduce Production
Growers are trying to conserve water currently, but there is a catch.
“Growers have been asked to conserve water in the past,” Fritz says. “Subsequently, after the growers have done their part, the following year we have been put on water usage restrictions, which makes it very difficult to continue the same production.”
“We’re well aware of where the government is going to take it,” Fritz says. “If we cut 30 percent this year, they’re going to tell us to cut 50 another percent next year.”
In the last drought, Anderson had to reduce production to meet a mandatory 30 percent cutback for those in agriculture.
“If the drought continues, it will probably be in the cards for us next year,” he says. As of now, water districts in areas south of Sacramento down to Bakersfield are currently looking at no allocation of additional water from both state and federal government. It could mean that some growers and nurseries may resort to shutting down some of their many operations, just to try to keep their doors open for business.
One solution is to access groundwater. Most operations have access to groundwater for pumping, but it comes at a higher price and the quality is not as good.
Switching To New Crops
Prolonged lack of water is taking its toll on the California landscape and may make some crops too expensive to grow.
“As you go through California, everything is incredibly dry,” Anderson says. “There’s no grass in rangelands. A lot of reservoirs that are usually filled at this point are almost empty. My problem now is that some of the crops I grow probably do not make sense anymore at the higher water costs.”
Anderson says he is looking to convert to other higher-valued, lower-water-use crops, and at the same time, raising the price of the other crops.
“I will have to make some hard decisions this summer regardless of what crops I grow,” he says, adding that he plans to increase production of lower-water-use crops such as cyads and agapanthus.
Altman Plants in Vista, Calif. has had cactus and succulents as a core part of its production the entire time its been in business, says owner Ken Altman.
“Around eight to 10 years ago, we added an emphasis on all kinds of drought tolerant plants, including many that have not been introduced or used commonly in the industry,” says Altman. “These programs are now timely and getting lots of attention.
Drought tolerant crops are also a staple at Rocket Farms in Salinas, Calif.
“Fortunately, one of our flagship crops, phalaenopsis orchids, requires very little water and we continue to promote this product and its benefits in the marketplace,” says Jason Kamimoto, vice president of sales and marketing at Rocket Farms.
Using Smart Water Techniques
Armstrong Growers has made water saving a priority over the years and is not reacting to the ups and downs of drought talk.
“Our facilities utilize the best practices in saving water. Drip irrigation, water booms and reclaiming all run off to be recycled are standard operating procedures,” says James Russell, vice president and general manager of Armstrong Growers, which has three growing locations in California.
Altman captures and recycles the water in its greenhouses, with the exception of one site. The operation is investing in capturing all water on that 420-acre site, so it can be reused. Besides Altman’s own investment, the business has received grants from the Metropolitan Water District, the local water district (Western Municipal) and from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The effort should save 30 percent of the water on that site, Altman says.
For Rocket Farms, the rising cost of water, coupled with strains on supply, mean that the business continually considers its approach to irrigation and how it recycles all of its irrigation water at its Half Moon Bay property.
“Rocket Farms has been recognized in the past for its water conservation efforts, as well as our strong partnerships with the USDA and local water resource agencies,” Kamimoto says.
One of the ways Anderson’s business conserves water is by using drip irrigation. He uses one acre foot of water per month, and up to 1 1/2 acre feet in August.
Anderson says consumers in San Diego are familiar with his operation’s reputation for responsible water use.
“Drip irrigation was invented here,” he says. “We have a long history of informing people how we use water.”
Still, as the drought continues, communication with the public and careful water use remain key.
“The understanding that we live in a dry region means we should always be prepared to save water,” Russell says. “Education on how to water and how much water plants really need is what needs to happen.”