Illustration By Fuzz Grant

Illustration By Fuzz Grant

April 2014

Publisher's View: Drought

Steven J. Moss

“M

y father told me that if this well ever runs dry, we’ll be in a crisis,” said the farmer. “Well, last month it went dry.”

I was sitting in the office of a fourth-generation Tulare County dairy farmer. Behind him hung a painting of a family holding baskets, strolling across a yard that featured a classic barn in the background with a 1930s automobile parked in front of it. It was an image of what the operation looked like a century ago. The whiff of manure was in the air, emanating from the milking facility next door.

“If you don’t mind me saying, you seem pretty calm for a man in a crisis,” I said.

The farmer looked at me, his eyes watery. “I may seem calm, but inside I’m anything but,” he replied. His shoulders sagged, as if the weight of generations of his family had climbed on top of him. I felt bad for asking such a pointed question. What was at stake wasn’t just the present, but a long past and the responsibility to safeguard a hoped-for future.

Despite the March rains, California remains very much in a drought. If water-scarce conditions continue, a similar situation, in Australia, may point to things to come. Between 2002 and 2012 that continent experienced a severe lack of precipitation, termed the “Big Dry.” By 2007 — five years in — the situation had become so dire that then Prime Minister John Howard appealed to higher powers. “We should all pray for rain,” he said. Sixty-five percent of all viable land in Australia was in drought. Major water storage reservoirs were at just 25 percent of capacity. 

The drought devastated Australia’s agricultural sector. Nationwide, the value of farm output fell by 30 percent in 2002. In 2007, production of major winter crops—wheat, barley, and canola—was off by 63 percent. Rice production evaporated. Prior to the drought, Australia was a major rice exporter, producing 1.74 million metric tons in 2001. By 2008, rice production had fallen to 0.19 million metric tons, a 90 percent decline. 

By the early years of the drought gross regional product in the most impacted areas had fallen by as much as 21 percent. Employment was estimated to have declined by more than five percent in some agricultural areas.

In 2007 it was announced that no irrigation water would be provided to the Murray-Darling basin—an area larger than France and Spain combined, accounting for roughly 80 percent of Australia’s irrigated agriculture—for the coming year unless there was significant rain in the next six weeks. Fortunately there was. But for this temporary respite in the drought, 50,000 farmers would have partially or completely been cut-off from water supplies.


Many, perhaps most, San Joaquin Valley farmers will similarly receive no irrigation water this year. Wells shallow and deep—some reaching 2,500 feet or more into the aquifer—will be their sole water source. If the wells go dry, so too will the fields that depend on them, putting almond, pistachio, and walnut orchards—among more than 200 other crops—which need several years and consistent watering before they bear fruit, at a risk of dying of thirst. Some fields will be fallowed. Others will be planted with beans and other lower-value crops that have shorter cultivation seasons, as a hedge against groundwater scarcity.

Not far from the dairy, I encountered a 100-year-old farmer who was still managing his family’s couple thousand acres of tree crops, mostly almonds. A Sikh born in what was to become India, he’d served in the British Army during World War II, and still had shrapnel in his leg to prove it. 

“I’ll be spending quite a bit of money on my wells this year,” he told me. “Refurbishing the ones I have; digging a few others.”

Developing and operating wells isn’t cheap. It can cost millions of dollars to dig a deep well, outfit it with a motor, and power it with the necessary electricity. There’s a risk that the hole could run dry prematurely, or could be made obsolete if surface water becomes available.

“Won’t that be costly,” I asked the farmer.

“I have no choice,” he replied. “When your house is on fire you don’t bargain with water.”  

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