It has been three long, dry years since California’s drought pandemic became a national concern, yet for berry-producing company Driscoll, they’ve known for way longer that there was a water shortage issue at hand.
The national berry giant is located in California’s Central Coast and has been monitoring the amount of water it uses and what they’ve found was that groundwater is disappearing at an alarming rate, causing water rights lawsuits and rising energy and water costs.
Only 3% of the Earth’s water is fresh water, the majority of which is found underground and must be tapped into to access. Groundwater accounts for nearly 95% of the nation’s available fresh water resources as well. Western states are normally at the mercy of groundwater levels, unlike those states who are near the Great Lakes Region.
The groundwater that provides for all of Pajaro Valley was being pumped at more than twice the rate that the aquifer could provide, which caused a major concern for coastal berry growers who were already dealing with the encroachment of saltwater from Monterey Bay.
“If the water goes away, land values go down, agriculture goes away and everybody loses,” said Kelley Bell, VP of Social and Environmental Impact at Discoll’s.
The company oversees independent growers who make up the $895 million a year agriculture industry. In order to solve the water crisis, Driscoll’s and the local farmers teamed up in 2010 to try and protect the valley and to restore the aquifer and not ask for outside help.
“We needed to solve this together,” said Bell. But this wasn’t as easy as it seemed.
Having multiple competitors trying to work together proved difficult, but today the group is working on low-tech and high-tech strategies in order to replenish the groundwater supply to that the valley can once again thrive.
The valley has started recycling the region’s wastewater, or grey water, in order to provide fresh water for 6,000 acres of coastal farmland. The group is also looking for areas that can capture and store rainwater as well as installing a recharge basin in 2012.
At the moment, the group is concentrating their efforts on farmers who use 85% of the valley’s water. Nearly 40% of the nation’s population uses groundwater as their daily source of drinking water, and 400 billion gallons of water are used every day.
Francisco Estrada, an independent Driscoll’s grower and one of the company’s largest growers, uses drip irrigation along with other high-tech agricultural advancements. He collects water use data and shares that with Driscoll’s in an effort to better monitor the situation. Estrada also uses soil moisture probes that give him a real time feedback on soil conditions.
Due to these water-saving strategies, Estrada has cut down on his agricultural costs. An acre-foot of water, for example, costs around $160, and he is already saving $100 on his electric bill per acre-foot of water he doesn’t need to pump.
Forty other farmers have hopped on the band wagon when it comes to water-saving strategies including moisture probes and other monitoring systems. Yet as good-natured as this group’s intentions may be to preserve groundwater, this is no match for California’s below-average rainfall this year, though every effort counts, especially where the state government and residents are concerned.
“We’re really encouraging the government where possible to let the people on the ground and the local agencies drive the responses to groundwater challenges and the drought,” said Bell. “We all have to work together and model best practices, or we’re not going to be successful.”