Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Whenever I decide to write about water, I always think it’s such a good idea. Then the real work begins — breaking down and trying to make sense of the complexity around this limited natural resource in the American West, and telling a good story. And I’ll wonder, why did I do this to myself?! Writing about water isn’t easy. I took a solution-oriented approach in this story for Comstock’s magazine. Photojournalist Sonya Doctorian took the photos and created the video.

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A rainbow over an almond orchard in California’s Central Valley. Photo by Sonya Doctorian.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Sacramento water agencies work together, adapting to drought and planning for a future of growth

By Sena Christian

Dr. Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, is the godfather of research on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When he says it took John Sutter eight days to wind his way from San Francisco Bay through the Delta to find the narrow Sacramento River in 1839, you can bet that’s the truth. Not until 1913 was the mouth of the river dredged to make it a mile wide. Grizzly bears roamed the wildness, feasting on an abundance of native fish, until they were hunted to local extinction. Today in the Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of North America, only remnants remain of the natural landscape before it was irreversibly altered at the hands of people.

The Delta is a system of canals. In places, you can stand on a man-made levee with high water on one side and sunken land on the other. For 7,000 years, sediment accumulated to form deposits of organically-rich peat soil, but the last 170 years of farming have undone this natural process. About 2,300 dump trucks worth of soil is lost per day, oxidized as carbon dioxide and all told, about half of the Delta’s soil material is now gone, says Curt Schmutte, a civil engineer who specializes in Delta issues. We named plots of land in the Delta “islands,” but scientists refer to them — the majority below sea level — as “holes.”

I’m with a tour group on a hot September afternoon, and we hold onto our hats and brace ourselves as the boat tears through the water at 40 miles per hour, past invasive water hyacinth, tules, fishermen, houseboats, farmland and cattle. The Delta accumulates water from California’s largest watershed and acts as the hub of the state’s water supply system, linking water from the north to the two biggest water projects, which play a major role in sustaining the world’s sixth largest economy and much of its industry, agriculture and 39 million people.

But the Delta exists under unrelenting pressure: from land-use change, population growth, nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment plants, earthquakes, agriculture, sea-level rise and more. Even with money, there’s no silver bullet to fix this ecosystem — but there are plenty of battling sides. “It’s like a game of chicken,” Lund says. “How do you break a game of chicken?”

… Read the rest of the article here …

A Dry Future Weighs Heavy on California Ag

This summer, I returned to California’s Central Valley to report again on how the state’s historic drought is impacting farmers. Photojournalist Sonya Doctorian joined me. This time, I focused on how farmers are proactively responding and adapting. My story appears in High Country News, and you can read an excerpt below. A big thank you to the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for making my reporting trip possible!

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Chris Hurd has been farming for three decades in California’s Central Valley. He’s worried about the drought and high cost of water. (Photo by Sonya Doctorian)

A Dry Future Weighs Heavy on California Agriculture

Something’s got to give in Central Valley farming. The only question is what.

By Sena Christian

On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children. “All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the shuttered building, closed in 2010. “I was on the school board, the grass was green, kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.”

Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry and farm-related jobs are running out. Many other places in the eight counties comprising the San Joaquin Valley have suffered similar fates. These areas were disadvantaged to begin with, rural and isolated, lacking infrastructure, public transportation and safe housing. Persistent drought has compounded the struggles of some of the poorest communities in the nation. As of late January, 64 percent of the state was experiencing extreme drought—down from 78 percent that time last year. But even a stellar El Niño year won’t undo all the damage.

Hurd, 65, who earned a degree in mechanized agriculture from California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in 1972, has farmed for the past 33 years. These days, he tends 1,500 acres and serves on the board of a local water district. Right now, he’s debating whether to rip out 80 acres of 20-year-old almond trees whose yields don’t justify the cost of the water. Three years ago, his annual water bill was $500,000. Now, he says, it’s $2.5 million; the price per acre-foot has sharply increased since the drought. Farmers like Hurd, who have junior water rights, are the first to see their allocations from the state’s two major water projects curtailed during shortages, forcing them to invest in new wells to pump groundwater or buy water on the market. In 2014, farmers with junior water rights faced an unprecedented zero allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. That happened again last year. In late February, the federal project will announce its water supply outlook for 2016. The State Water Project has also dramatically reduced its deliveries over the last two years.

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, farmers escape Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl by heading west to California in search of jobs and fertile land. Hurd says his friends have begun joking, grimly, about the reverse scenario — California isn’t working out, so why not pick up and move back to Oklahoma? “Some are leaving, some are staying to fight, a lot of them are in flux,” he says. Yet while grit has something to do with who stays and who goes, it ultimately comes down to two main factors: water and money. The survivors will likely need senior water rights and money to spend on planting high-value orchards or implementing expensive technology. Economically, California remains the largest agricultural producer in the United States. But El Niño’s precipitation not withstanding, the prolonged drought is putting some farmers under heavy duress, and no one is sure how far California’s Eden will sink.

… Read the rest of the article here …

How One California Farmer is Battling the Drought

Here we have the seventh and final article in my series on American farming and food systems, as part of my participation in the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. I wrote a profile of large-scale California farmer Cannon Michael for Ensia magazine, in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). Read an excerpt below. The profile was brought to life by the beautiful photos of photojournalist and Ted Scripps Fellow Sonya Doctorian.

Cannon Michael is a farmer is California's Central Valley. Photo by Sonya Doctorian.

Cannon Michael is a farmer is California’s Central Valley. Photo by Sonya Doctorian.

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

On a warm March afternoon, farmer Cannon Michael walks alongside wheat fields adjacent to his house in Los Banos, in California’s Central Valley. Most of these fields won’t be watered again this year.

“Wheat’s not a glamorous crop, but it makes a lot of bread,” Michael quips.

This wheat, though, won’t return much money, Michael says. So it will be harvested for his sister’s two bakeries in San Francisco and the land fallowed, along with some fields formerly planted in alfalfa and cotton. They are among more than 1,000 acres Michael left unplanted this season to try and conserve water, amounting to about 10 percent of the 10,500 irrigated acres that make up his farm, Bowles Farming Company. Walking past the fields with his wife, Heidi, and their three young sons to a nearby barn with goats and sheep, Michael jokes about an imaginary Taylor Swift song called, “Sheep It Off,” much to his kids’ dismay.

Michael has a humorous side, but laughter can’t mask the rough reality of farming today in the Central Valley, a place famed for its abundant bounty of fruits and vegetables. By the spring of 2014, the region’s farmers had gone into survival mode. They hoped to secure enough water for a decent harvest, but last summer about 15,000 farmers on San Joaquin Valley’s east side received zero allocations of water from the Central Valley Project, the federal project in charge of storing and managing much of California’s water. The state’s worst drought in 1,200 years ravaged the region.

The drought, in combination with this long-established government system for deciding who gets water and who does not, has split the valley. Now Michael’s life, it seems, is almost exclusively focused on finding ways to conserve water and helping his neighbors who lack the precious resource. There’s no time to waste. If Michael and his peers can’t figure out a way to conserve and share the water that remains, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions will be jeopardized. California agriculture is a $46 billion industry, and the Central Valley alone produces nearly half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts in its Class 1 soil — the highest quality.

… Read the rest of the article here …