Amidst Madera County in Central California lies a city known as Chowchilla. Surrounding the city are acres of almond farms. Madera County produces over 100 million pounds of almonds per year and this number is always expanding. Between 2007 and 2014 approximately 23,000 acres of natural land in California’s agricultural region was converted to almond farms. Almonds are a very high water usage crop and with the ensuing boom in almond farms there are profound impacts on the water use in the region.
Overall, with California’s high agricultural productivity and high population, the state is experiencing extremely high water demand. Unfortunately, the state is facing a shrinking supply of water. Climate Change is significantly affecting the central valley precipitation levels, making the main rivers (Sacramento and San Joaquin) unreliable and triggering the droughts.
I have visited the Madera region twice in the last three years. I stayed at my best friend’s family’s farm outside Chowchilla where I experienced the life of a California almond farmer first hand. The first time in 2015 when 41% of California was experiencing exceptional drought and once again in 2016 when 35% of California was experiencing exceptional drought. While California has experienced droughts before they have been more dramatic in recent years due to climate change. With the increasing temperatures, air is capable of holding more water vapor thus more of the precipitation that falls on the ground is evaporated meaning less water gets into the soil or streams. Unfortunately, this has made California’s agricultural region and the almond farm outside of Chowchilla vulnerable to water scarcity.
One major impact of the droughts is the increasing cost of water. With the unreliable water supply many farmers are forced to pay out of pocket for water from the government. The droughts are pushing water prices to record levels. Prices in the most recent drought were approximately $3,000 per acre-foot, up from $60 in a normal year.
In recent years, many farmers did not gain any profit and had to fallow land just to ensure their farms would survive. Fortunately, 2017 did not see a drought in California. With climate change and the possibility of even more droughts, the questions now are: how can farmers prepare for even more intense droughts in the coming years? And how can they help decrease the effects of climate change?
Some farmers are attempting to combat climate change while others are looking for solutions to the issues associated with climate change induced droughts. In 2016, California actually saw a solar energy boom for California farmers. Many farmers invested in solar panels and renewable energy to combat climate change. Others invested in desalination plants, new irrigation techniques and storage options to ensure water independence during droughts. My friend’s farm invested in both. The almond farm which now uses an improved drip irrigation system and drainage ditches to decrease water use also has solar panels on unused land. In 2015 when I toured the farm they had a sprinkler irrigation system that sprayed the tree trunks. In 2016 they had shifted to an irrigation system that drips water into the almond tree roots. In 2016 they had also expanded their solar panels and were almost completely energy independent. When I visited in 2016 I did not see the importance of these changes, however with this research I realize that the farm is well set up for future droughts and is in fact reducing emissions and energy use to manage climate change. This approach of adaptation and mitigation is essential in the future and California is at the forefront of this strategy for the USA. The USA as a whole is a disappointment in terms of its climate change agenda. In leaving the Paris Agreement and joining Syria (the only other country not to sign), the USA endangers not only itself but the planet. Without accepting climate change and attempting to mitigate it the country and California will feel even more effects in the next decade. Droughts, heatwaves and weather variability will destroy the country’s agricultural productivity which could affect food accessibility.