Drought: Santa Cruz region faces tough decisions as water shortage continues

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Drought: Santa Cruz region faces tough decisions as water shortage continues

By Ava Poen, Kirby School, Santa Cruz, Calif.

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Verticillium wilt is a monster.

The pathogen wreaks havoc on strawberries–shriveling stems, yellowing leaves, stunting growth, and damaging plant tissue. Swanton Berry Farm kills this pervasive soil pathogen with a carefully executed five-year crop rotation. Across their five farms, Swanton follows this plan: strawberries for one to two years, cover crop in winter, bell beans, ryegrass for nitrogen fixation, and lastly, broccoli and cauliflower, which, as members of the brassica family, contain compounds that create a hostile environment for verticillium, forcing the pathogen to remain in its resting stage, rendering it benign to crops.

However, Swanton manager Barrett “Bear” Boaen, reveals there is a downfall to broccoli and cauliflower: drip irrigation is not an option. The crops must be irrigated by sprinkler, a system that uses more water.

And right now, water is gold.

California is experiencing the worst drought in more than 100 years. Reservoirs are depleted and fields lie fallow. Santa Cruz City Council is taking small steps toward community-wide organization. The Santa Cruz Water Advisory Board will meet early April, and County residents must ration beginning May 1, says City Council member Micah Posner.

“What we’ve devised so far is an upper limit of 10 CCF (1 CCF = 100 Cubic Feet or 748 Gallons) per household of four people or below per month,” explains Posner. “But I’m trying to get it revised. The average household size is 2.5, so I feel like it’s not that strict.”

In the meantime, residents and farmers alike must adapt to the shortage. Each farm has its own set of struggles, Boaen explains, sitting at a green wooden picnic table outside Swanton’s Farm Stand. Wind blows his curly brown hair.

“Everyone in this county has a different water situation,” he said. “Santa Cruz County has very diverse topography. We have tons of microclimates and about 360 different types of soil.”

Each of Swanton’s five branches juggle different variables. Up Highway One, Wilder Ranch, Swanton Ranch, Davenport Ranch, and Coastways Ranch experience 20 mph winds.

“It depletes water in our reservoirs and dries out berries significantly,” Boaen explains, bundled in a puffy down jacket. “And winds are averaging about 30 mph this year along the Coast.”

Along the North Coast, land is less fertile than in South County and water harder to come by. Digging aquifers is difficult — you hit shale 18 inches below the topsoil.

“Most of our water is from rain-fed reservoirs or from stream draws through the county ag line,” Boaen said. “And we don’t have reservoirs like South County does, which are some of the most extensive networks in the world. They’ll move water all the way from Northern California. All we have is whatever is in Santa Cruz. We don’t get to buy from other places.”

Swanton’s southern farm, Laguna Ranch, draws off the county ag line.

“I buy water from Santa Cruz County, which pulls the water from creeks on the North Coast and then puts them into reservoirs which we draw out of,” says Boaen, clasping his hands together and pushing his sunglasses farther up his nose. “Those are regulated by both the County and Fish and Wildlife Service. They want certain water levels to stay in place so we can have salmon and steelhead and so we can keep water in the rivers for other sensitive species.”

This year, Laguna Ranch was shut down. “Since we’ve had no rain, we moved 80 percent of our production onto Coastways Ranch,” Boaen said. “We’ve got all our eggs in one basket.”

Other local farmers have experienced decreased crop yields as well.

“[The drought] affects what crops we can grow. Our melons and tomatoes are water-heavy crops, so we’ve had less production this year,” said a farmer (who prefers to remain anonymous) from Happy Boy Farms in Watsonville. “Another option is dry farming — irrigating the crop until it blossoms and then stop watering. The roots grow deeper, but you have a smaller yield. If it continues to do this every year, we’re gonna have to shift what we grow.”

Many smaller operations in South County, however, aren’t experiencing the full effects of the water shortage. Ronald Donkervoort, owner of Windmill Farms in Moss Landing, is not worried about this year’s drought.

“I get water from the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, or PVWMA,” Donkervoort said. “It’s the big pipeline you seen down Highway One. They recycle water from the Watsonville area.”

Similarly, manager Chris Mora of Route One Farms, located along the San Lorenzo River and Waddell Creek, is unconcerned.

“We have four 20,000 gallon tanks which we fill up in case we run out of water from our two huge wells,” Mora said. “We also have a creek running through that supplies us with a bunch of water, so we’re okay.”

A lack of water doesn’t always mean halted production. At Live Earth Farm in Watsonville, crop yields are actually higher than normal, explains employee Evan Domisic.

“Because it’s a drought and the weather has been warmer, things are growing a little bit faster than they should at this time of year,” Domisic said.

His coworker, Taylor Brady, chimes in: “But we don’t really know what’s gonna happen. We have wells, so it’s unknown how much water we have.”

Boaen and the rest of Swanton face uncharted waters as well. However, he claims, “the water shortage isn’t really changing our game plan. If we run out of water, we run out of water. And our workers won’t get to work and then we’ll be really sad. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” He pauses and scratches his beard. “But right now, it’s going awesome. Berries have come in early because we’ve had phenomenal weather. We haven’t had a lot of rain problems, such as mold or damaged fruit skins.”

But even if problems aren’t severe, most farms have updated their methods to conserve water. “The biggest change is that we’ve switched from sprinkling irrigation to drip-line on almost all of our crops [at Live Earth Farm],” explains Domisic. “There are certain crops we still have to irrigate with sprinklers, but for the most part, everything is on drip line.”

Swanton is also adapting. “We’re trying to construct our bed in ways that we won’t lose runoff,” says Boaen. “We’re also updating our piping system. Gallons of water can be lost from one tiny leak off a pipe. Gallons of water can mean the life or death of one berry plant, which can give us baskets and baskets of berries. That one berry plant is very important.” He laughs.

Here at Kirby, the water shortage is similarly forcing changes. The Kirby Green Committee is studying ways to reduce the School’s water usage.

“The majority of our rooftop garden is drought tolerant and native. Plants are watered with drip irrigation,” says Melody Overstreet, Kirby’s School Garden Coordinator. “So, in context of drought, the plants are the smallest issue. Our greatest usage comes from the kitchen and bathrooms. And the little things, like faucets that are left on or dripping.”

Overstreet is always looking to reduce the School’s environmental footprint.

“I’d love to see Kirby be a self-sustaining unit,” she said. “I’d love to have water catchment on the deck and see rainwater as our source for plant irrigation. And if we can harvest rainwater, that would be inspiring to me and also a really wonderful educational tool to question business as usual and envision a more thoughtful system.”

Water shortage isn’t all bleak for Santa Cruz. “Since the drought entered our political agenda, Santa Cruz has reduced water usage by 15 percent,” Posner notes. And it’s an opportune time for agricultural innovation and experimentation, says Boean. But risks are high. “If a new method doesn’t work, it isn’t, ‘Oh shucks.’ It’s ‘Oh, we’re done. We failed. We’re belly-up.’”

Many farms are taking calculated risks and reusing other farmers’ techniques. Swanton innovated a new crop rotation to eliminate pathogens — a method that requires zero water.

Our industry is all about adaptation. We’re constantly trying to move on to more efficient technologies. Everything is constantly in flux.”

“One thing about broccoli and cauliflower is that you can’t drip-irrigate. You have to sprinkler them,” explains Boaen. “But bingo — mustard! Mustard grows fallow in the North Coast. Doesn’t need any water, doesn’t need anything, really. It’s tolerant to salt air, which we’re getting blasted with right now, it doesn’t mind the wind, and it’s really effective at destroying verticillium wilt. And you can press out the mustard seeds and get a biodiesel that we use to power our equipment and vehicles.”

Boaen props his elbows on the picnic table. “Our industry is all about adaptation,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to move on to more efficient technologies. Everything is constantly in flux.”