Waiting for the rain...

by Pilar Barrera Rey, Colombia, ELP 2014
Written on July 20, 2014.

Think of juicy heirloom tomatoes, tasty eggplants, rich almonds, delicious melons of different types and refreshing watermelons. Are you salivating already? Well, I surely was during my visit to Full Belly, a 350-acre farm in Capay Valley where one of its friendly owners presented me with these and many other certified organic products that are grown there.

Indeed, Capay Valley in Yolo County, California, has been blessed with features that make it not only a beautiful place to visit, but also a very fertile region. Its moderate climate, with mild summers and winters, allows for a longer agricultural cycle than other regions in the US, as well as a wide variety of produce that can be grown and harvested in this valley.

The key to producing these organically certified products is the absence of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. In addition, as it’s the case of most other productive activities, water availability is an important aspect of the variety of produce. Agricultural irrigation here relies on two main sources of water: rain and ground water, which in turn depends on rain. In short, it all comes down to rain.

The average amount of precipitation for the year in Capay is 28.0" (or 711.2 mm). The month with the most precipitation on average is January and the month with the least precipitation on average is July. The valley only has an average of 65 days of precipitation in the year1.

In 2014, as it’s the case for the rest of California, this fertile valley is suffering one of its worst droughts in many years. Simply put: it hasn’t rained enough.

Water is not only crucial for agriculture in this valley, it’s also important for domestic uses: cooking, bathing and drinking for families who live in the valley but who are not necessarily farmers.

As told by our host at Full Belly, with little rain and continuous irrigation of the crops, the water table level decreases, and the farm resorts to pumping even deeper into the ground. This has in fact affected a neighboring family, who recently suffered the complete lack of the precious liquid for several days.

To make matters worse, the use of groundwater is not regulated in California, as there is no legal system to allocate water amongst competing uses. This seems very serious to me. Even in many developing countries, groundwater pumping is regulated for different uses.

I’m afraid that with the perspective of climate change, the situation is likely to worsen. After my visit to the valley, I couldn’t help but wonder about the future of this and other farms, in the absence of long term solutions. I got to thinking that unless the legislators and authorities get their act together and start putting some order to the use of groundwater, “hoping that it rains” as my friendly host responded when asked about how she’s planning to confront the drought, will not be enough.

1 Weatherbase (2014).