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Growing A Solution To California’s Groundwater Crisis

By Peyton Fleming Senior Communications Director, Ceres Three years before the California drought became a national crisis, national berry giant Driscoll’s, on the state’s Central Coast, knew it had a major problem with water. It was disappearing. As a result, water rights lawsuits had become commonplace, water rates were rising again and the precious liquid...

Francisco Estrada’s 432 acres of strawberry fields in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. (Photography courtesy of Ana Zacapa)

By Peyton Fleming
Senior Communications Director, Ceres

Three years before the California drought became a national crisis, national berry giant Driscoll’s, on the state’s Central Coast, knew it had a major problem with water.

It was disappearing. As a result, water rights lawsuits had become commonplace, water rates were rising again and the precious liquid seemed to be vanishing before growers’ eyes. Groundwater, which provides all of Pajaro Valley’s water, was being pumped at twice the rate the aquifer could provide – the equivalent of about 12,000 acre-feet a year (an acre-foot is the volume of water covering one acre one foot deep.) The problem was especially dire for coastal berry growers whose overdrawn wells were also being contaminated by saltwater intrusion from nearby Monterey Bay.

“It was like a perfect storm,” said Kelley Bell, VP of Social and Environmental Impact at Driscoll’s, of the escalating water shortfalls which threatened Driscoll’s independent growers and many other farmers in the valley’s $895 million a year agriculture industry.

“If the water goes away, land values go down, agricultural goes away and everybody loses,” added Bell, whose company is headquartered here in Watsonville.

Driscoll’s didn’t just watch the water go down the drain.

In 2010, it partnered with local landowners and growers, the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County and other groups to launch a bold public/private partnership, the Community Water Dialogue, to solve the valley’s water problems. The group had three defining goals when it started: a commitment to protect the valley as an important agricultural resource; a willingness to deploy diverse strategies that would require costs and sacrifices by all to restore the aquifer; and a recognition that they would solve the problem on their own rather than pushing for ‘outside’ fixes, such as a new pipeline to import water.

“There’s no one else that can address this issue, just us as a community,” Bell said.

“We needed to solve this together.”

It was a consortium of strange bedfellows who are sometimes at each other’s throats –landowners, rival growers, academics, government agencies and nonprofit groups. Yet the group today is deploying a mixture of low-tech and high-tech strategies in its effort to replenish the depleted groundwater basin and protect the agricultural economy.

Recycling the region’s wastewater was a key first step. Rather than being discharged into Monterey Bay, treated municipal wastewater is now delivered by the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency to irrigate about 6,000 acres of coastal farmland. The recycled water will eventually provide about a quarter of the water needed to halt salt-water intrusion.

The group is also identifying properties, designated as aquifer recharge zones, suitably located to capture and store rainwater and other runoff. The first pilot recharge basin, located at the bottom of 125 acres of sloping private properties, opened in 2012.

“The goal is to have this first basin recharge about 100 acre-feet per year and having 10 of these eventually which would mean recharging about 1,000 acre-feet a year,” said Lisa Lurie, program specialist at the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County.

But most of the group’s water-saving activity is aimed at farmers who use about 85 percent of the valley’s water. Among those is Francisco Estrada, an independent Driscoll’s grower who manages 432 acres of strawberry fields in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Like all Driscoll’s growers, Estrada uses mostly drip irrigation instead of less efficient overhead irrigation on his fields. He’s also collecting and sharing water use data with Driscoll’s, a requirement the company now has for all of its farmers locally.

Estrada is also an avid early-adopter of new technologies that Driscoll’s is encouraging to further reduce water use. Standing among thousands of strawberry plants resplendent with luscious bright-red strawberries, he shows off one of hundreds of soil moisture probes that now dot most of his fields. The probes, connected by a Wireless Integration Network (WIN), provide real-time soil moisture data that is pivotal in deciding when and how much water is needed on a given field.

Estrada says the cumulative results from his various water-saving strategies have been stunning. “With the older systems, we were using anywhere from 3½ to 4 acre-feet of water per acre (each year on these fields.),” he said. “We’re now using about 2 to 2½ acre-feet per acre, and we’re still seeing the same yields and quality.”

In addition to helping the aquifer, Estrada’s water-saving strategies are cutting his costs. An acre-foot of water costs him about $160. He saves an additional $100 on his electric bills for every acre-foot of water he doesn’t have to pump.

Estrada is not alone in reducing his water use. A few miles from Estrada’s fields, JJ Scurich of Creekside Farms has seen comparable drops in water use on his blackberry and raspberry bushes by using drip irrigation, water moisture probes and more efficient water pumps.

Forty farmers across the valley are using the soil moisture probes within the WIN network, and now that the entire valley is wired, Driscoll’s expects that number to go up. One encouraging indicator in this regard: more than 130 growers showed up for a recent irrigation and nutrient training workshop.

So is the group succeeding in negating the state’s devastating drought?

The answer, of course, is no. Water-saving actions by all of the region’s farmers are no match for getting only a few inches of rain in all of 2013 and below-average rainfall so far this year.

But clearly the group’s efforts are helping. “With less rainfall you would expect to see more groundwater pumping. However, pumping in 2013 was more or less the same as the amount pumped in 2008, despite there being significantly less rainfall,” Lurie said, adding that the pilot recharge basin captured 33 acre-feet and 31 acre-feet of water in each of the past two years.

The Community Water Dialogue also provides lessons as statewide groundwater reforms are being scrutinized – among those, the importance of collaborative efforts and local-oriented solutions.

“We’re really encouraging the government where possible to let the people on the ground and the local agencies drive the responses to groundwater challenges and the drought,” Bell said. Ultimately, though, “We all have to work together and model best practices, or we’re not going to be successful.”

This column is part of a series exploring how California companies are pursuing innovative approaches to protect depleted groundwater supplies amid the state’s devastating drought and groundwater reform legislation being debated in Sacramento.

About the Author

Peyton Fleming is senior communications director at Ceres, a nonprofit organization mobilizing business and investor leadership on global sustainability challenges. Connect with him on Twitter @PeytonCeres or by email Learn more about Ceres at

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Meet the Author

Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy. Through powerful networks and advocacy, Ceres tackles the world’s biggest sustainability challenges, including climate change, water scarcity and pollution, and human rights abuses.