Nervousness over California's epic drought has given way to alarm, reported Joby Warrick in the Washington Post. Streams and lakes are drying up, and now the aquifers are being pumped at an unsustainable rate.
The massive shift to groundwater has helped farmers survive this year, but a UC Davis study says tapping groundwater at the same rate into the future could soon deplete this valuable resource.
"A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account," said Richard Howitt, professor emeritus in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis. "We're acting like the super rich who have so much money they don't need to balance their checkbook."
Thomas Harter, UC Cooperative Extension groundwater specialist in the Department of Land, Air and Water at UC Davis, said depleting the aquifer is more serious than depleting water reservoirs because aquifers take far longer to replenish.
"It's a downward path," he said. "We cannot do what we did this year on a permanent basis."
The article focused on the Earth Day festivities at UC Merced, but the water-savings tips came from David Doll, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Merced County. A large fraction of home water use happens in the yard. Doll said reducing lawn watering time and fixing broken sprinklers are important first steps to water conservation.
Grass lawn can use more water than many agricultural crops - including almonds, walnuts and tomatoes. Generally residents can cut back lawn irrigation and keep it green.
Doll shared a simple test to prevent excessive landscape irrigation. Pinch the soil between the thumb and index finger. If dirt crumbles and falls away, it needs water. But if it forms into a ribbon one-inch wide or longer, it can go another day or two without water, Miller reported.
Water conservation is part of the citizen science project being launched May 8 by UC Cooperative Extension to mark its 100th anniversary. On the Day of Science and Service all Californians are asked to report their water saving strategies. To participate, go to http://beascientist.ucanr.edu.
He said an estimated 500,000 acres of farmland sits unplanted due to water shortages, a number that could nearly double if the drought extends into 2015.
"In the long term, it could change some of the cropping patterns in California, especially for the animal industry," Parker told NBC, explaining that the economics of raising and tending livestock hinges on locally grown feed. "Without water to grow it, you really end up just having to sell off animals." Much of the state's beef cattle, for example, roam unirrigated rangelands that are parched.
Parker was also quoted in a drought story by Aljazeera America, which focused on Gov. Brown's $687 million emergency drought plan.
“I think it's a good first start,” Parker said. “But I don't think this will be the end of it.”
Gov. Brown's proposal doesn't provide funding for long-term solutions to California's water problems, but it could provide much-needed immediate assistance to many of the driest communities.
Capital Press spoke to Alan Fulton, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for Tehama, Colusa, Glen and Shasta counties, about the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's dire 2014 surface water allocation plan. He said most farmers will rely on groundwater to get through the season.
"The main thing that will happen is just improving their wells and making sure they're operable,” Fulton said. “They're trying to manage through the drought with hopes of a wet year next year.”
Mother Jones featured a drought story rich with infographics outlining the surprising amount of water required to grow common food crops and the amount of water used per person per day in California communities. The article includes commentary from Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, about the future of agriculture in the Golden State.
Lund said the state's current water problems mean agriculture may soon play a less important role in California's economy, as the business of growing food moves to the South and the Midwest, where water is less expensive. Production rates for thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton have already diminished significantly in the last few years, Lund said. Between 2006 and 2010 alone, the amount of land irrigated for cotton fell by 46 percent.
The State Water Resources Control Board recommended a point-of-sale fee on agricultural commodities, a fertilizer tax, or a water-use fee from residents to offset the costs of providing clean drinking water to communities where tap water supplies have high levels of nitrate, reported Gosia Wozniacka of Associated Press. The final report to the legislature is on the SWRSC website.
The AP article was published in BakersfieldNow.com, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. A story by Sasha Khokha of KQED about the report said California may become one of the first states to levy a fee on nitrogen fertilizer if the Legislature adopts the board's recommendations.
The water board based its recommendations on a UC Davis study it commissioned, which was released last March and titled Addressing Nitrate in California's Drinking Water. The study said that nitrate contamination of drinking water is an issue in the Tulare Lake Basin of the San Joaquin Valley and the Salinas Valley.
UC Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Experiment Station researchers are working with growers with small and large acreage on fertilizer management, irrigation efficiency and other farming practices to provide options for protecting groundwater. For more on these efforts, see Healthy crops, safe water.
Recommendation No. 12 in the SWRSC report said water boards should continue to provide technical assistance for CDFA's ongoing work with UC Cooperative Extension and other experts in establishing a nitrogen management training and certification program that recognizes the importance of water quality protection. UC Ag and Natural Resources is developing a curriculum to train certified crop advisors in nitrogen budgeting.
Because 20 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level and the country maintains an important agricultural sector, managing water has required creative approaches. Wageningen University entered into a memorandum of understanding with UC Davis to collaborate on water issues.
Both institutions and CDFA's Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) believe there are opportunities for information sharing about technological advances that can be used to help solve water quality and efficiency challenges facing farmers and ranchers. FREP has been actively engaged in funding research to support efficient use of nitrogen fertilizers in order to limit the movement of nitrates to surface and groundwater systems. The Netherlands has experience with similar issues.