Environmental impacts of Western drought matter to small farmers
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While not everyone might be upset by California-based drought expert and author John Austin’s recent observation that for trees and plants in California, “it is probably the worst 16-year period in more than 850 years,” it certainly sets off alarm bells for our organization. In fact, Austin’s haunting observation that we have entered a “new normal” when it comes to drought is one that should concern and motivate us all.

Unfortunately, this “new normal” extends beyond California. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 22 percent of the contiguous United States suffered moderate to extreme drought at the end of August 2016: “The dry conditions were reflected in spotty areas by low streamflow; groundwater levels; and reservoir levels, both statewide and locally, especially in California. By the end of the month, 50 percent or more of the topsoil was rated short or very short of moisture (dry or very dry) in New Mexico (73%), California (70%), Nevada (65%), Oregon (62%), and Idaho (61%), and 50 percent or more of the subsoil was rated short or very short of moisture in California (80%), Oregon (65%), Nevada (65%), Idaho (55%), New Mexico (55%), and Wyoming (50%).”


At the nonprofit Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), our mission is to advance economic viability, social equity, and ecological land management among limited-resource farmers. ALBA trains individuals in farm management and organic crop production practices with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and economic success. Establishing such new organic agricultural businesses in California is difficult for our entrepreneurial farmers--most of whom are Latino and/or former farmworkers-- as there are many expenses involved. This chronic drought has added yet another layer of challenges.

For example, drought hinders our farmers’ ability to cover crop the land. When done properly, cover-cropping serves to restore organic matter to the land which helps it retain moisture, reducing the need for irrigation and suppressing pest pressure. This benefits our environment, and saves the farmer money in the long run. But a lack of adequate organic matter in the soil exacerbates effects of the drought, calling for more irrigation and costly pest mitigation measures which negatively impact crop quality and yields. 

As one of our organic farmers, Victor Cortes, points out: “We need a lot of rain to wash the salts out of the soil for the strawberries. Really dry years also make it hard to establish strong plants, which affects the quality of the fruit -- we see smaller sizes and softer fruit.”

On ALBA’s educational farm in Salinas, Calif., our well is a mere 340 feet deep. We are concerned it could go dry, particularly because new wells are now dug to a depth of 900 feet. It would cost a quarter million dollars for us to drill a new well -- a significant investment for a nonprofit or an independent family farmer like those we serve.

One ‘tide that could lift all boats’ is enhanced funding from the U.S. Congress for federal programs like EQIP and WaterSMART, which encourage water conservation and support on-farm and municipal projects that make more efficient use of existing water supplies. Importantly, the Bureau of Reclamation recently proposed making projects that protect habitat and/or keep water in our rivers also eligible for WaterSMART grant funding. This good idea could benefit agriculture, our communities and our environment. Of course, we also need to make sure to coordinate these water conservation programs on the ground, in key watersheds.

While not a splashy subject, we also need greater commitment and investment in acquiring and sharing data about water. It’s important that we ask – and answer -- key questions: How much water does California have? How much is being saved by water conservation programs? Are those programs benefiting our environment and small farmers? How much water are we putting back into our rivers and groundwater reserves? These questions matter to all farmers – small and large, organic and otherwise – and should matter to all Westerners.

In the face of climate change, there is still more to do to sustain our environment, communities, and agriculture, especially organic family farmers. We all need to work together to identify and deploy innovative, collaborative solutions during what is increasingly being recognized as chronic drought – the unfortunate “new normal” as Austin observed, for our Western way of life.

Nathan Harkleroad is Program Manager for the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, a nonprofit organization based in Salinas. The organization's overall goal is to create greater economic opportunities for small farms while promoting ecological land management and healthy local foods.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.