How Do California’s Farmers Endure Severe Drought?



Drought has ravaged California for over a decade. Just two years after the last six-year drought officially ended, the state is in the grips of another. Two thirds of the region is in ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought.


High temperatures, wildfires, and reduced water system replenishment has resulted in ‘immediate and dire water shortages ’,* threatening food supply, drinking water and hydroelectricity power.


Regulators of the Water Resource Control Board found they had little option but to sanction rare emergency water extraction restrictions - voting unanimously to stop diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in a bid to help protect the state’s fragile water supply.


Although all users are under the restrictions with residents asked to reduce their consumption by 15%, the unprecedented action will have the biggest impact on the agricultural industry. Formal curtailment orders have been issued to 5,700 farmers and landowners, preventing withdrawal from the streams and rivers. The importance of the restrictions is reflected in the tough penalties. The fines for the illegal diversion of water are up to $1,000 per day, plus $2,500 per acre-foot withdrawn.


Why have the Californian farmer’s water rights been withdrawn?


Approximately 1,100 square miles, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta serves nearly two thirds of California. It provides drinking water for 29 million people and irrigation water for a huge proportion of the $50bn agricultural industry. It receives its water from the annual snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and the Southern Cascades Mountains.


Following the warmest, driest year since records began in 1869, a combination of higher temperatures, dry soils and the vast wildfires have reduced snowmelt by an estimated 800,000 acre-feet. Whilst it's not uncommon to lose 10-20%, the loss of 80% is ‘beyond unprecedented’. According to the State Department for Water Resources, this year’s conditions have been forecast in climate change models – however, they were not expected to occur for decades.


Raging since mid-July, the vast Dixie wildfire destroyed over 860,000 acres by September and still burns over 9,000 acres per day. The lost tree cover in the Southern Cascades and the Sierra Nevada Mountains increased direct sun on the snow, whilst the black sooty debris attracted heat, melting the snow faster - reducing the reliability of the state’s largest water supply.


Demand for water is 16 times higher than supply*.


With reduced input, Lake Oroville, one of the largest state reservoirs, is at almost one third of its capacity; it’s expected to reach a record-low in October. A substantial proportion of Californians could see their water supply become endangered, particularly if the drought continues into 2022.




If that wasn’t enough, another imminent environmental crisis looms – salt-water intrusion. Without sufficient outflow, the snowmelt in the river system will no longer push back the saline-rich Pacific tide. If this high-salinity water reaches the pumps, it will have a devastating effect on agriculture, fish stocks and the drinking water of 25 million Californians.


The impact on the Californian agricultural industry.


The State Department for Food and Agriculture understand that their decision will have very real impacts on people’s lives. However, as they explained, if they had not taken this action, there would be more horrendous consequences to follow for all. The move to revoke the senior water rights for landowners, speaks of the problem's severity.


Whilst on the whole, farmers understand the reasons for the urgent restrictions; they live with the impact of the drought every day. But nonetheless, these curtailments create serious hardship for growers. Decreased irrigation will result in reduced plant growth, poor produce quality and size. Growers may not being able to meet the contracts they negotiated in the spring. These agreements being based on water resource availability and its cost.

Many farmers purchased their land due to the high level of security the water rights provided, without this, many face difficult financial choices as they fight to endure the droughts restrictions.


The Californian agriculture industry uses 80% of the state’s water** The state grows 40% of the U.S.A’s fruit, vegetables and nuts++.

With increasing demands on producers, growers will have little option but to adapt. Reliance on the municipal supply, but it is prohibitively expensive. Farmers without access to groundwater wells will have little option but to purchase a limited supply and prioritise their higher-value crops.


For those with access to them, the depleted groundwater reserves are the only choice, many drilling deeper and deeper wells. It has been estimated that farmers will pump 6-7 million acre-feet from wells this year, in addition to their usual consumption+. To put that in perspective, that quantity would cover 10,000 square miles with a foot of water.


However, pumping water from aquifers at unsustainable rates can have serious environmental consequences, as was experienced in the previous state-wide drought. Exhaustive over-withdrawal resulted in subsidence that damaged infrastructure and compressed soils. The aquifers could not replenish, which only exacerbated the issue.


How can agricultural technologies mitigate the effects of drought?


Fortunately, necessity always breeds invention. Emerging agricultural irrigation and smart water technology can help mitigate the effects of drought for growers, helping them navigate more difficult times brought about by climate change.

Wastewater recycling.


The prolonged period of drought has meant that regional and municipal districts are at the forefront of research and development of water technology solutions. Orange County is home to the world’s largest water recycling project, reprocessing the wastewater of its 3.2 million residents.

As part of the water conservation strategy, wastewater passes through a solid plast membrane, a molecular-level membrane and reinjects the filtered fluid back into the groundwater basin. Orange County is one of the largest users of reclaimed water, recycling it for agricultural irrigation, power-plant cooling and urban-use.



Smart irrigation management.


Advanced precision agriculture can maximise water efficiency. The drip lines for a subsurface drip irrigation system are buried six to twelve inches below the root zone. This delivers water right where the plant needs it and prevents the rapid evaporation rates that occur with over-ground spray systems. Similarly, automated timers for surface irrigation can schedule watering during the coolest parts of the day, preventing loss. By watering at night, there’s almost zero evaporation, whatever is not absorbed seeps through the soil, replenishing the water table.


Avoiding over or under watering, smart technology autonomously monitors the crop irrigation and adjusts it accordingly. It can alert the farmer to any leaks, which may be wasting this precious resource. Pressurised pipelines also minimise wastage. In fact, drip irrigation systems can save up to 80% water and even increase yield due to higher absorption.




Sustainable water treatment.


With so little irrigation water, farmers need to maximise every available supply. But not all sources are suitable due to the salinity levels. High salinity water is toxic, limiting plant growth and yield. It creates thick salt-crusts and walls that channel water away from the root-zone. Over time, the once fertile agricultural soil degrades, becoming barren and unproductive.


However, agronomists have developed a sustainable water treatment for agriculture so farmers can use hard, saline and brackish supplies to irrigate without damaging their crop or their soils. It reduces salt levels in water by physically changing the molecular structure, breaking down the salt crystals, improving the quality of irrigation water. The plant absorbs more water, increasing yield, produce quantity and harvest reliability. By restoring its natural biodiversity, it helps keep soil healthy. The sustainable technology is chemical-free and produces no harmful by-products. Its solar-powered, weatherproof and can stand-up to the toughest drought conditions.


Those who need this type of treatment for water the most, rarely have the available funding for new equipment. With that in mind, the agri-tech business behind the ground-breaking tech, made it available on a subscription-basis, either supplying direct or via government policy initiatives.


Its use means that farmers can grow more using up to 20% less water - saving money and increasing profit. The reduced consumption will conserve valuable freshwater sources, helping regional groundwater and surface reserves replenish. It will help farms remain compliant with government restrictions and this tech could be part of the solution should salt-water intrusion occur, as predicted.




The imposed water restrictions have been rare. Yet watershed experts from the University of California, Davis, state that these will become routine as the climate crisis intensifies. They warn of far-reaching consequences for the population should next year be another dry year.


However, after a decade of drought recovery, California is planning for a drier future with the state governor’s publication of their Water Resilience Portfolio – a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system.



The future of farming technology.

The good news is that emerging smart agricultural innovation systems can help decrease the severity water shortages and drought for farmers around the world. Water treatment, management and application farm technologies can form part of the solution to not only mitigate the effects of climate change but also lessen the wider impact on our global food system and supply.


*State Water Resources Control, **The Guardian, +University of California, Merced, ++NPR.org,

ALVÁTECH is working with Californian farmers, helping them grow more with less water.