As Their Wells Dry Up, California's Small Farms Seek Emergency Relief | Civil Eats

As Their Wells Dry Up, California’s Small Farms Seek Emergency Relief

With $731 million yet to be allocated in the state’s water and drought relief package, it’s unclear whether small-scale farms will be included.

A worker uses a tractor to pull an uprooted almond tree at a farm near Mendota, California. As the California drought continues, Central California farmers are hiring well drillers to seek water underground for their crops.

A worker uses a tractor to pull an uprooted almond tree at a farm near Mendota, California. As the California drought continues, Central California farmers are hiring well drillers to seek water underground for their crops.

At the base of the Smith Mountain in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Rebecca and Tory Torosian own a small farm known for its citrus and stone fruit. In the summer, they usually irrigate primarily with runoff from the Kings River, by way of a canal. But this year, as California contends with a historic drought, the irrigation district did not run any water, cutting them off. In turn, the Torosians decided to stop irrigating their citrus trees—five acres of oranges, mandarins, and grapefruit they’ve cultivated for years. And without irrigation, the trees won’t make it through the long, hot dry season.

“By the end of the summer, they’ll be bone-dry. They’ll be a fire hazard,” said Tory Torosian, of the orchard. “It makes me sick that we’re having to abandon [the trees].”

Rebecca and Tory Torosian selling their oroblanco grapefruit, which they were forced to abandon this summer. (Photo credit: CUESA/Gary Yost)

Rebecca and Tory Torosian selling their oroblanco grapefruit, which they were forced to abandon this summer. (Photo credit: CUESA/Gary Yost)

The loss of their oro blanco grapefruit, beloved by locals at farmers’ markets, is especially heart-wrenching. “We’ve had them for 20 years. People look forward to them every winter,” said Torosian. Yet despite their regional fame, they weren’t bringing in the income to be worth the water consumed, so they made a tough economic calculation and let them go. “The extra water it would take to keep them alive would put a burden on everything else,” said Torosian.

For the remainder of the crops on the 80-acre Tory Farms, the Torosians are relying on groundwater drawn from two agricultural wells that are nearing empty. As a result, the well’s motor is operating on overdrive—producing only 70 gallons per minute, compared to a typical rate of 1,200 gallons per minute—to pull the remaining water from the well. As the pump’s motor runs for a longer period, their energy bill balloons, adding what Torosian expects will be 30 percent more to their operating costs. “We’re going to be scraping the barrel,” said Torosian.

As the drought deepens, a number of small-scale farmers in California have found themselves in a similar position: scraping the barrel. Earlier this year, we reported that farmers in the state are coping with the drought by fallowing land, transitioning to less thirsty crops, and trucking in water. Since then, California Governor Gavin Newsom has expanded the emergency drought declaration to include more counties, as surface water has been curtailed and groundwater levels have dropped, but the state has yet to include relief earmarked for small farmers in the budget.

As it stands, California’s $3.14 billion water infrastructure and drought relief package—$2.4 billion of which has already been appropriated—does not provide emergency funds directed specifically to small farmers dealing with water scarcity. This year’s package is part of a four-year investment in response to the drought and climate crisis, which Governor Newsom proposed in May. However, there is currently a window of opportunity to address the gap: $731 million remains to be allocated for specific activities within budget negotiations that will be finalized by September 10.

“We’re scrambling to make sure that small farmers aren’t left out of the package,” said Paul Towers, the executive director of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. In the meantime, CAFF is offering grants of $5,000 for small farmers in a disaster, including a pool of $250,000 set aside for 45 drought-afflicted farms. “We see ourselves as a stopgap, hopefully,” said Towers.

By keeping small farmers in business, Towers adds, the proposed relief would also support other aspects of California’s regional food systems—its locally sourced restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets. “There are 76,000 different farms in California, the majority of which are small. They really are the backbone of our local food system,” he said. And yet, Towers worries that “without support to weather the drought, they may not be able to keep growing food for California.”

California Assemblymember Richard Bloom indicated that conversations are underway to address some of the concerns raised by CAFF and other advocates.

“I can’t get into specifics, but the Assembly and Senate are negotiating with the Administration on substantial investments to help Californians—including small farms—respond to the drought conditions and transition to more sustainable agriculture,” wrote Bloom, in an email.

Hundreds of Agricultural Wells Could Go Dry

After two exceptionally dry winters, limited snowpack has resulted in historically low surface water available to be pumped through California’s system of canals and reservoirs. On August 3, regulators voted to curtail water rights—access to stream and river water, known as “surface water”—to thousands of Californians, many of them farmers. In the Central Valley, the state’s large agricultural region, many irrigation districts either cut their seasons short or didn’t deliver any surface water at all.

For example, the Fresno Irrigation District (FID), one of the largest in the Central Valley, only offered standard water deliveries in June, and gave farmers in some service areas the option of paying for the aptly named “hardship water” in July. Typically, their water delivery season lasts for six months. The hardship water costs $125 per acre-foot of water, more than five times the cost of their standard water deliveries.

When, like the Torosians, small farmers turn to groundwater, they tend to get, quite literally, the short end of the stick.

“Domestic well users and some smaller farmers tend to have shorter wells that are drilled less deep into the aquifer system,” said Claudia Faunt, a hydrologist with a focus on groundwater availability and program chief for the U.S. Geological Survey’s California Water Science Center. “They are going to be the first wells impacted as the water levels go below the base of the well,” she added, noting that there are other factors influencing well depletion as well, such as proximity to a recharge source.

Dry wells used to be uncommon in the Central Valley. “When farmers first started getting there, you could sink a well into the ground and it would be flowing,” said Faunt. Yet, she says decades of drawing more water than can be replenished has depleted this critical resource, raising both immediate and existential questions about how and if agriculture will continue to be practiced in the region.

According to recent research conducted in partnership with CAFF, 355 agricultural wells are at risk of going dry between 2021 and 2022, primarily within the ag-intensive counties of Fresno, Madera, and Tulare. Another 5,524 agricultural wells in the Central Valley will need to have their pumps lowered or replaced.

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Darcy Bostic, a researcher at Rural Community Assistance Partnership, Inc., who performed the analysis independently, says that number is likely an underestimate, given that it only includes registered wells built after 1965 with sufficient data on well depth. She notes that California digitized its well data in 2015, but many of the earlier handwritten reports were illegible or missing information.

“The larger farms could afford to go 1,000 feet underground; small farms typically can’t,” said Bostic, noting that smaller farms typically have wells that are less that 300 feet deep. She estimates that deepening or replacing a well costs an average of $35,000, while lowering the pump to reach deeper water levels costs an average of $7,000.

The immediate risk posed to small farmers prompted CAFF to write a letter in June to Governor Newson and other California and federal lawmakers to request that emergency drought assistance for small farmers to be included in the budget. (None of the letter’s addressees responded to Civil Eats’ request for comment.)

In the letter, provided to Civil Eats, CAFF requested a $70 million expansion to the State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program (SWEEP), to include “pump lowering and well lowering for farms of 200 acres or less.” This would be in addition to the $40 million already allocated in the budget for the program, which provides funding to farmers to transition to more water-efficient irrigation systems, including soil moisture monitoring, pump retrofits, and drip irrigation—measures that are critical for helping farmers adapt to less water, yet do not address the needs of farmers in an emergency situation.

“What we’re proposing is a program, or programs, that helps farmers with little to no access to water. Unfortunately, that looks like it could be a large number of farmers over the next year,” said Towers, of CAFF.

On top of this, CAFF is requesting $15 million in general drought relief for small-scale farmers, and $2 million to support an education program for vintners and wineries looking to use dry farming, a practices that is much less water-intensive than typical grape production.

Risk to Regional Food Systems, Including Farmers of the Southeast Asian Diaspora

Many of the operations at most risk of seeing their wells run dry are run by farmers of color with limited resources, who lease land and operate on thin margins.

“Shallow agricultural wells are more likely to be found on the east side of the Kings Subbasin and in the peri-urban areas surrounding the city of Fresno,” explained Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, a small farms advisor for Fresno and Tulare counties with the University of California Cooperative Extension. Whereas farmers to the west of Fresno tend to be large-scale producers exporting commodity crops, the east side is home to many Hmong farmers and other Southeast Asian farmers, the majority of whom came to the U.S. as refugees.

The cost of building a new well isn’t economically feasible for these farmers. “You’re asking folks to come up with $30,000 or $40,000. That’s maybe what they’re making in a year,” said Blong Xiong, the executive director of the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center, which supports Asian businesses throughout the Central Valley. “So, you’re asking them to invest a year’s worth of income on a property that they’re leasing year to year?”

This economic burden is especially draining considering that many of the farmers Xiong works with struggled to access financial assistance tied to Covid-19, he said. “There’s still a lot of unanswered support that should have gone to these small, disadvantaged farmers,” said Xiong, who points to language and technological barriers as key challenges for the farmers.

If emergency drought relief for small-scale farms is made available, Xiong emphasizes the importance of culturally competent technical assistance to ensure that the funding makes it into the hands of the farmers who need it the most.

The funding could also support tenant farmers who need to mitigate or deepen their wells to access water. This year, Wisher Young, a Hmong refugee who emigrated to California two decades ago and now owns a small farm in Fresno, noticed that his well was not producing the same amount of water it had in years past.

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“The water is too low, so that last year I ran it for about five to six hours, but now it runs about eight hours,” said Wisher. This has caused his utility bill to go up by about 25 percent.

Small farmer Wisher Young on his farm in Fresno. (Photo courtesy of the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center)

Wisher Young on his farm in Fresno. (Photo courtesy of the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center)

Wisher explained that he is not in a position to fix the issue since the landowner—with whom he has a one-year lease—is not interested in paying for well mitigation. “They don’t plan to do anything unless they don’t have water,” he said.

Wisher hopes to one day own his own farmland. Yet, like many small-scale farmers, his plan hinges on how California manages land and water in the coming years.

The Future of California’s Small-Scale Farms

The inclusion of California’s small farmers within the drought and water package may be an important stopgap measure. But it isn’t a longer-term solution to ensure the survival of small farmers amid quickly depleting water resources compounded by the climate crisis. Many of California’s groundwater basins are dangerously over-drafted, especially in the Central Valley, which has led the land to sink and water quality to deteriorate.

There is a significant effort to address this growing scarcity: During another severe drought in 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a landmark law that aims to balance California’s levels of pumping and recharging groundwater by 2040. But as the law gets implemented over the next decade, the survival of small-scale farms is in question.

As a long-term solution, CAFF, the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center, and others are pushing for small-scale farms to be included within the Groundwater Act’s implementation process and the resulting regulations. This includes, for instance, advocating to ensure refugee and immigrant farmers are able to access information regarding SGMA and metering and pumping fees don’t prove too costly.

But before making it to 2040, small farmers need to first make it through the current historic drought, which will be partially shaped by budgeting decisions in the coming weeks. “We’re just trying to help them stay in business,” said Dave Runsten, the policy director of CAFF. “If we just allow the market to decide these things, we’re going to end up with [only] large-scale, commodity production [in the state], most of which is exported.”

Greta Moran is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats based in Queens, New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Greta writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. Read more >

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  1. Cecille Giacoma
    This has happened because California politicians do not support the historic farming in the Central Valley, comprised of small, independent farmers and their farms. Instead, Jerry Brown sold-out to large, wealthy agribusiness like Stuart Resnick, his partners, and his company, “Wonderful” allowing them to over pump and waste groundwater by growing huge export crops on the alkali flats along the west side of the Central Valley, draining the aquifers that once supported domestic crop farmers throughout the Eastern Central Valley for well over a hundred years.
    Resnick and his ilk are farming land that does not support food for the U.S. Market. Our politicians are abandoning California's farmers which will make it impossible for California to continue to grow the crops that feed this and other states throughout the year. Greed for export dollars in the pockets of politician’s “friends” has overtaken and is killing agriculture in this state.

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