California has been marred by extreme drought conditions for three years, but Central Valley farmers lost their most precious and coveted resource—water.
Family farmers across the Central Valley faced setbacks, restrictions and lost revenue as a result of the drought. Jason Giannelli, a fourth generation farmer from Bakersfield, fallowed 100 acres of almonds this year and found no respite, despite holding a senior water right contract.
“We pay for 100 percent of it…we only got five percent of our water,” Giannelli said. “That’s like someone paying 100 percent for their house and only getting five percent of it.”
Jason Giannelli tears out an almond orchard.
Farmers lose more than production when water is scarce, they face the possibility of losing a family institution dating back centuries. The Central Valley holds 19 counties with more than 35,000 farms and 6 million harvested acres—of these institutions, 90% are family owned and operated.
Cannon Michael, a sixth generation farmer in Los Banos, learned to pioneer his land with less water and emphasized conservation. But the change has not been easy.
Michael has an established water right contract, but his water allotment received a 25 percent cut back this year. However, the location of Michael’s farm as well as the district it operates under left him in a comfortable position despite the decrease in contractual water supply.
The district that Michael farms under emphasizes the recirculation of water which plays into groundwater assets. Every molecule of water has been used by someone else which continues down the line as a form of recycling, Michael explained.
Larger family farms like Michael’s have multiple water outlets to sustain growth during extreme drought but that is not the case for every agricultural property. According to the former president of the Wonderful Companies’ nut division Joe Macilvaine, small farmers’ water rights are generally dependent on the location of their farm.
Macilvaine explained that while the Wonderful Company has sizable control over their water due to its size, history and ownership of the Kern River Bank, surrounding family farms face a large disparity in the reliability of water supply.
“If you're a farmer that came to the valley later in the game and you're relying entirely on the state water project for your water supply, you're in big trouble,” Macilvaine said.
The old adage “location is everything” plays out externally for Central Valley farmers. Giannelli explained that his water comes from the Friant Dam as well as groundwater but he does not receive the full allotment he pays for.
“We wouldn't have an overdraft problem if we just had the water that we paid for to begin with,” Giannelli said.
According to Gianelli, California does not provide the infrastructure necessary to support water storage which caused several Central Valley farmers to change cropping patterns.
Cropping patterns allow farmers to maintain soil fertility and increase the annual crop yield, Science Direct reports.
Michael invested in winter crops in 2017, a crop he had never grown before. The idea is to plant these crops in the fall when rainfall is most expected, providing water stability. The downside of dedicating 20 percent of the farm to winter crops is the economic ramification.
“The demand of those crops is going to essentially taper off by the time we get to the summer,” Michael said. “So that essentially took 20 percent of our demand off the table.”
Altering farming practices and irrigation techniques in order to make the most of water is a necessary approach to the drought, but it is a costly process. Michael invested millions of dollars into water conservation tactics.
Seventy-five percent of the farm has drip irrigation, which Michael explained is a form of water stewardship. A common misconception about farmers, according to Michael, is that they do not steward their water and force their water rights on the state.
“Conserving water is something that is valuable because if we can use it more efficiently, it drives our costs down,” Michael said. “I just think people don't fully understand that there's no benefit to me over irrigating a crop—it actually is detrimental. We only want to use the right amount of water for each crop.”
Drip lines are placed 14 inches underground and localize water to plant roots, reducing runoff. According to MIT News, drip irrigation reduces a farmer’s water consumption by 60 percent. Michael’s lines also utilize green energy from solar panels to operate the drip systems.
Between drip irrigation and shifting crop demand, Michael explained that the farm has enough water to get through the hottest summer months.
The ability of a family farm to maintain enough water to efficiently feed crops is based on two factors: senior water rights and location. In California, all water is technically property of the state, but senior rights holders have airtight contracts that grant them access to water.
Water rights are similar to property rights, giving landowners access to bodies of water adjacent to the property. California utilizes a complex system for surface water rights, which can be riparian or appropriative depending on the seniority of rights.
According to the California Water Board, California and Oklahoma are the only western states that recognize riparian rights. Riparian rights allow farmers to use any water that naturally flows past the property. Appropriative rights, on the other hand, allow farmers to divert surface water at one point to use for their benefit at another point.
During drought years, it is beneficial to be a senior rights holder, but the allotment differs depending on a farmer’s location and district. Michael explained that his district and proximity to the Shasta Dam as well as surrounding water banks puts him in a more favorable position during the drought than a farmer in a restrictive district might be.
Central Valley farmers’ water is also restricted by environmental regulations—the largest competitor is salmon. The battle between environmental regulators and farmers is hard-fought and decades long. According to Giannelli, there is no state oversight to subdue environmental regulators.
In 2021, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to reduce farmers’ rights to draw water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Farmers’ water rights have been heavily mitigated by conservationists and regulators during the drought according to Giannelli. Their primary goal is to set aside water for fish.
“The changes of regulation and the shifting of values is now saying, ‘we're going to operate a system much differently to try to drive a fish outcome’ and that's not how we operated in the past,” Michael explained.
In recent years, farmers have roughly 300 regulatory forms that must be filled out. For larger family farmers like Michael, this is accomplished quickly, but for small farmers, the process is painstaking.
“You may be a great farmer. But if you don't have the expertise or time to navigate through all the regulatory requirements… It's a big headache,” Jon Reiter, a Fresno-based farm advisor stated.
Another regulatory development founded in 2014 is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, aptly shortened to SGMA. SGMA was enacted to bring groundwater basins into balanced levels in terms of pumping and recharge. The act also requires local agencies to adopt sustainability plans for groundwater basins.
SGMA has been met with mixed emotions from growers. According to a study by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, farmers felt that while they were able to participate in SGMA through irrigation districts, they reportedly felt left out of the decision making process as many districts did not include farmer representation.
For Michael, SGMA needed to be implemented in order to regulate the overuse of groundwater by people without ethical standards. Most farms are family owned and operate with a high degree of morality and respect for the environment, Michael explained, but some groups are only interested in a quick profit which disrupts the system. One such group dug deep wells in his district without a water right and caused a 20 percent reduction of the farm’s natural diversion.
“I think we couldn't just go on not [being] regulated,” Michael said. “Agriculture does have a lot of great stories and they get overshadowed a lot of times by some bad actions.”
Still, the regulatory weight placed on farmers can be immense. According to Macilvaine, its necessity is indisputable but not directly to the benefit of growers.
“Regulation seems to me very much like pruning a tree. You know there may be many good reasons to prune a tree but causing the tree to grow more as a result of pruning never works,” Macilvaine said. “It always slows the tree down. I think it’s true of regulation as well. There may be very good reasons to regulate things—you have to, there are very good reasons. But you shouldn’t claim that growth is the reason why you’re doing it because that’s very unlikely.”
According to Giannelli, there are many misconceptions about farming practices. From water usage to pesticides, most family-owned farms operate ethically and care about the community they are part of.
“As farmers, we're not out here poisoning the soil and [doing] anything to jeopardize our livelihood. That's how we make a living. This is how my employees feed their families,” Giannelli said.
As a member of the Water Association of Kern County, Giannelli is dedicated to educating the local Kern community on water issues and where their water comes from absent any political bias.
“The whole purpose of the water association is to kind of take the political aspect out of it and just allow people from both sides to speak,” Giannelli said. “We do a lot of education outreach.”
Michael has also been a leader in his community, from composting efforts to wetland preservation. Last June, Michael took 20 acres of his agriculture land and turned it into a composting area.
Throughout California, food and green waste is sent to landfills to break down slowly, which Michael explained causes more methane. In order to combat this, Michael takes the municipal green waste from the city and council of Sacramento and Folsom.
Everyday, six truckloads of green waste is delivered to the farm where a group of farm workers sort through the material. Michael added that farms are already dumping grounds of unwanted things, so composting makes the most of a bad situation.
Within 30 days the waste is cleaned and ground into fine material. Water is added and turned into the material and held at 150 degrees for 30 days. After this arduous process, it becomes organic certified compost.
“We're building our soil organic matter—we're building the structure of our soil. The water holding capacity of the soil improves so we can use less irrigation water,” Michael said. “It's a good example of an urban and [agriculture] partnership. That is something valuable.”
Along with composting efforts, Michael manages 650 acres of wetland habitat surrounding the farm. In order to support birds during migration, he founded the Great Valley Seed Company to replant native plant material and utilizes the seed to help the birds on his privately owned wetland habitat.
“We essentially are growing the native plants that have the seeds in the food so that when these birds get here at this time of year, there's something there for them to eat because they're burning so many calories,” Michael explained.
Michael's farm borders the second largest contiguous wetlands in the United States.