Why California Farmers Are Conflicted About Using Less Water
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And let's immerse ourselves in some approaches to producing, and especially saving, our most precious resource, water. That's the subject of this week's All Tech Considered.
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CORNISH: The drought across much of the Western U.S. is now in its fourth year. There's lots of talk about technology that will help. And farmers are debating whether it makes sense for them to use it. In California, where the drought is most intense, farms aren't under the same strict orders to conserve that cities are. We're going to start with this report from NPR's Aarti Shahani, who's just back from the Salinas Valley, the so-called salad bowl of the world.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: In the world of water conservation, there are a few no-brainer solutions. Take drip irrigation. I'm sitting in the back of a big green, creaky tractor in a big lettuce field, only it's not planting seeds. It's laying down a long, thin rubber tube called drip tape.
MICHAEL ANTLE: So there's a shoe right here - like a shoe that grooves into the ground.
SHAHANI: That's Michael Antle, farm manager with Tanimura & Antle.
ANTLE: And the weight of the soil on top of the tape holds it in.
SHAHANI: Drip irrigation is not new tech. It's tried and true tech. The co-founder of his grandpa's farm, George Tanimura, introduced this method for lettuce decades ago. The drip method was used as far back as first-century B.C. China.
ANTLE: And if you could see, there's a hole right here.
SHAHANI: The tape has little slits. Turn on the faucet and water seeps out gradually close to the seeds. It's the farmer's version of a low-flow toilet and a nice way to save water in windy Salinas Valley. Scott Rossi, another manager here, says regular sprinklers are constantly missing their mark in this wind.
SCOTT ROSSI: I mean, I don't know if you can hear it through the mic, but it's blowing pretty good. I'd say 12 - 12 miles an hour, I don't know.
SHAHANI: Tanimura & Antle use drip in nearly all their fields, but about 40 percent of farmland in Salinas doesn't do any drip irrigation at all. And a recent statewide survey found the number of farm acres using drip and similar water-conserving tech - that number increased by just 5 percent in the decade ending 2010. Rossi says many farmers have decided to drill instead of drip to go deeper into their wells, even if it hurts the overall supply of groundwater because in the short term, it's cheaper. That bugs him.
ROSSI: Yeah, you're saving. And then your neighbor's well next-door to you is pumping, and there's a sprinkler again. You like to think that way, but they'll follow suit here soon or they're going to have to follow suit soon, you know?
SHAHANI: What farms will have to do is actually a matter of huge debate. And some say there is an incentive to not conserve. Right now, across California, new agencies are being formed to set baselines. Norm Groot, head of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, says many farmers fear if they take less groundwater now, the baseline set for them will be smaller.
NORM GROOT: It is very much a tricky situation. You're asking people to conserve, and then you're establishing a further number that they have to conserve. And that's when the pain starts is that they do the easy parts first, and then they don't get credit for that later on.
SHAHANI: It's that economics problem, game theory. In a zero-sum game where there's only so much to go around, you don't want to lose your piece of the pie. Groot says giant farms like Tanimura & Antle can take a hit, but small, family-owned farms - they'll shut down, so they're fighting for survival.
GROOT: What choice do they have but to say no, don't take my water because it takes water to grow my crops?
SHAHANI: Local optimists say one choice is to make the pie bigger. I'm at a water-recycling plant with Gary Peterson, the head of public works for Salinas.
Why does it smell kind of funky here?
GARY PETERSON: Because you're standing above treated sewer water.
SHAHANI: Last year, his team realized they could take the water used to wash lettuce in the factories - hundreds of millions of gallons - and divert it here to get recycled. Otherwise, it was just going into a pool that evaporated.
PETERSON: And what we're seeing, especially with the continued drought, is that if we don't get together on this, there's going to be some really big losers.
SHAHANI: Peterson says while water from the plant can't feed an entire valley, it matters because the farmers, who often work on their own, joined hands to make it happen. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Salinas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.