Van de Water looks at core samples that have been taken from the bottom of former lake beds across the western United States – telling the tale of a much wetter climate not too long ago.
“This represents a period of time. So in the lake itself, you have stuff that is falling down into the lake onto the top of it – so it builds up over time,” Van de Water said. “This is the oldest part of that lake, and this is the top of it or the youngest part of the lake.”
Variations in organic matter – such as the presence of pollens – can tell what the climate was like during certain eras.
“In terms of animals and vegetation, they are very similar to things that we would now expect in areas like central Washington, northern Washington and southern Canada,” Van de Water said.
Here in the Central Valley is a burgeoning industry that required infrastructure, such a reservoirs and canals, that would supply life giving water to the rich soils across a dry region.
“The whole idea was to have the district fully planted, operational, producing jobs, producing food – being an economic impact to the community,” said Gayle Holman of the Westlands Water District.
“There’s a huge demand for some of the permanent crops over some of the smaller crops that are hand harvested”
Changes in what kind of crops have been grown in the Valley since this time are not just due to weather factors. Demand and water allocation also have a major impact.
“There’s a huge demand for some of the permanent crops over some of the smaller crops that are hand harvested,” Holman said.
Pistachios are a good example of a crop which has changed the valley ag landscape. As demand for the nuts surged over the past 30 to 40 years, field after field of cropland was converted to pistachio orchards.
“There’s no other crop in the U.S. that have had the rise that California pistachios have had, to go from essentially nothing in the 1960s to 300,000 acres now,” said Bob Klein of the California Pistachio Research Board.
Pistachios thrive in dry and hot conditions, but they also need at least 800 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees – or “chill.” And although demand is high, and this winter has offered up plenty of water, one thing it hasn’t offered up is chill. And chill is what these trees need in order to go dormant.
“Into the 1990s and 1980s, chill usually ran about 1,000 or 1,200 hours of chill. We haven’t seen that for a long time,” Klein said.
Yet another factor – who is getting water and who isn’t?
“We’ve been fallowing quite a bit of land to the degree about a third of our operation has been left out because we just didn’t have the water,” Errotabere said.
Many in Valley agricultural circles will refer to the drought as a “regulatory drought” – pointing fingers less at climate change and more at where it’s ending up.
“Going forward, we’ve already raised temperatures a couple degrees. This warming has been caused primarily by greenhouse gasses.”
Holman said it’s “the regulatory restrictions that are in place that put a priority of water into other places besides farming.”
Others point figures more directly at the human influence on long term changes in climate.
Van de Water said, “Going forward, we’ve already raised temperatures a couple degrees. This warming has been caused primarily by greenhouse gasses.”
Although rains have offered hope, years of hard times for Valley farmers won’t easily be forgotten – nor these issues easily solved.
Errotabere said, “We also go into the assumption that it may be normal or it may be below normal; we are pretty conservative with our planning because we don’t know if the water will be there when our final planning stage comes in.”
But how do we balance the new normal of a higher population, the needs of agriculture, as well as the potential of dryer times? Regardless of perspective, everyone agrees it’s going to take adjusting to these changes, and that’s going to take a lot of work.
“If we’re going to have some stability in farming – and I think as California as a whole – we’re going to have to do some heavy planning on how the operations of the projects service their customers – at the same time recognizing droughts are a regular phenomenon,” Errotabere said.
Recent Pistachio Yields
- 2015 – Record low crops due to lack of chill (270 million pounds, record low yield per acre)
- 2016 – Record crop yield with sufficient chill (900 million pounds)
- 2017 – Sufficient water but not enough chill
Van de Water said, “Farmers understand more than anybody else. And being on the land is an eye-opening experience because you get the sense of what’s coming, what’s going and what’s been around.”
As far as water goes, the solution for lack of water storage that is most often suggested is to construct new reservoirs… But when it comes to adjusting to what kind of weather farmers can expect in years to come, nobody can really know for sure how kind mother nature will be to our state’s farmers.