How one California farmer is battling the worst drought in 1,200 years

California’s byzantine water system and crushing drought are leading farmers to extraordinary measures as they try to keep themselves from running dry.

By Sena Christian (@SenaCChristian) for Ensia.

When his neighbors on the east side of the valley were struggling last spring, Michael saw frustration and heartbreak all around him.

The Central Valley Project is one of California’s two largest water projects. The other, the State Water Project, began in the late 1950s and now supplies water from northern state rivers for 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland and 25 million residents in the south. Most farmers contract to receive a specific amount of water from one of these two projects, but the byzantine system of allocations means that some farmers are at the front of the line for water, while others stand much further back. In a time of drought, a lack of access to this water can be fatal.

Image for post
Image for post
Fourth-generation farmer Chris Hurd isn’t sure his farming operation will survive a fourth year of California’s historic drought. “I stayed alive last year,” he says, “but I’m not sure I’ll make it this year.” Photo by Sonya Doctorian.
Image for post
Image for post
A rainbow appears over an almond orchard after a brief March shower. Winter is usually the rainy season in the Central Valley, but January saw nearly no rainfall this year in Fresno County and just over an inch in February. Photo by Sonya Doctorian.

Of 27 major rivers, 16 had allocations greater than 100 percent of natural supplies; the San Joaquin River had the highest allocation level at 861 percent.

Besides the drought, problems seem to stem from poor accounting of water usage. The state’s water right allocations now total five times more surface water than is available in a good rainfall year, and regulators struggle to figure out whose supplies to cut during a drought because of inaccurate reporting from water appropriators and the complicated water-rights system, according to a UC Davis report published in August.

Image for post
Image for post

Ensia is a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store