Historic drought threatens California farms

Farmers say extreme weather and policies meant to combat climate change have left their fields barren.

Cows graze in a dry landscape in Grapevine, California in the drought-stricken Central Valley. [File:Robyn Beck/AFP]

In the valleys of central California, the search for water has turned into an all-out obsession as the region suffers through a drought that could threaten the US’s food supply.

Residents have watched with dismay as verdant fields turned into brown, dusty plains, leaving shrivelled trees, dying plants and frustrated farmers.

Much of California, and of the broader US West, has suffered through years of lighter-than-usual precipitation and a particularly dry winter.

State and local authorities, fearful that there may not be enough water for city dwellers or wildlife, have abruptly cut supplies to farms, provoking anger and consternation.

Along the roads between major farming operations, billboards have popped up everywhere with “Save California’s Water”.

They accuse the authorities of “dumping… our water in the ocean”.

A barren field in the town of Huron, California in the drought-stricken Central Valley. [File: Robyn Beck/AFP]

Growers complain that the state’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is strangling them under a mountain of pointless restrictions, leaving them unable to fill their usual role of supplying the US’s supermarkets.

“I had two wells dry up last week,” 28-year-old Nick Foglio, a fourth-generation farmer and feed broker, told AFP news agency.

He added that he has “2,000 acres (800 hectares) of alfalfa going dry”.

Standing in a dusty field near Fresno, he said he worries that with “the wrong political agenda, we’re simply going to starve ourselves and probably the rest of the world”.

‘Devastating’ situation

California authorities do not seem to be hearing that message.

Reacting to dire signs of a worsening climate crisis, they passed new emergency legislation last week to prevent thousands of people – notably farmers – from diverting streams or rivers.

“In a year when Mother Nature doesn’t make it rain, there is no water for them,” said Jeanine Jones, a manager with the California Department of Water Resources.

When the authorities cut off water supplies, farmers find themselves forced to rely on wells, dug deep into the ground at costs of thousands of dollars.

They draw groundwater from subsurface pools hundreds of feet deep. But even they eventually run dry.

“The situation is pretty terrible,” said Liset Garcia, who relied on well water to irrigate half her eight-hectare farm – until it dried up.

She has been waiting for weeks for a well-drilling service – which has more work than it can handle – to make it to her farm in hopes of finding even a small new supply of water deep in the ground.

Sitting in her vegetable stand near the town of Reedley, the 30-year-old farmer greets clients with enthusiasm that belies the ravages her farm has suffered in a warming world.

Heat has destroyed several of her crops – which have “literally baked under the sun”.

Climate change, scientists say, will lead to even more extreme and frequent episodes of drought – further jeopardising food security.

Feeding the US in these conditions will be a challenge.

Source: AFP