Water, as we all know, is one very valuable resource. We need it for the basic essentials—to bathe, to clean, to drink. It’s also the reason all of us are able to eat. Without water, our farmers couldn’t grow food—not just for us, but for the world. But recent water restrictions have hindered farmers, causing loss of jobs, loss of crops and higher food prices.
In 2008, due to a drought and threat to an endangered fish, a decision was made to cut back water usage. Normally, when extra water is needed, water is pumped from various reservoirs. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a main fresh water resource for us, contains a fish known as the delta smelt. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibited the pumping of water from the Delta, fearing that the endangered smelt would be threatened.
The smelt, along with a California drought, caused more water shortage and higher water prices. In 2009 and 2010, a severe water restriction was put in effect for our state and the farmers got hit the hardest.
“Thirty percent of water usage was cut in Southern California,” said market manager Mary Hillebrecht. “Central Valley was cut by almost 100 percent.”
The drought was deemed over by Gov. Jerry Brown at the end of March 2011, but these extreme water restrictions have not yet been completely lifted. And unfortunately, once the bans do lift, the damage from them has already been done.
“Farmers cut down a third of their trees,” Hillebrecht said. “Or they cut back (pruned) their trees, which then died. Trees don’t live without water.”
Farmers who decided to keep all of their trees ended up losing some of them anyway. And those who cut down their trees lost a percentage of their crops, their workers and income. Hillebrecht believes cutting back so severely on agricultural water use ended up negatively affecting our economy.
“We would’ve had jobs, shipping, more usage of fuel, people would’ve been buying more of our product,” she said.
All in all, the water restrictions have had a domino effect. Not only have they put people out of jobs, both in the farming industry and in the shipping industry, but they’ve affected the price we pay for our fruits and veggies.
“Prices are the highest they’ve been in a long, long time because of water restrictions,” Hillebrecht said, “and also because of other happenings in the world (like the extreme frost storms in Florida and Mexico).”
According to the American Farm Bureau, retail food prices as a whole have increased by 4 percent already this year.
Hillebrecht boasts that farms, like Valdivia Farms, have adapted well to the restrictions. Other local farmers, like Bob Polito of Polito Family Farms, sit on water boards with hopes of making a positive change in the way people view water and agriculture.
“Unfortunately, we can’t change the law or how people think,” Hillebrecht said. “But we do what we can.”
Ways farmers have had to adapt to the water changes include growing different crops. While it’s not ideal, it’s sometimes necessary. Big money-making crops have been hit the hardest.
“Hay, corn, cotton, wheat and barley have all been affected” by lack of water, Hillebrecht said. “Fruits and vegetables, too. Nothing’s been untouched.”
It’s important for residents to realize that while home sacrifices have had to be made (like only watering the lawn on mandated days), the farmers’ sacrifices have been far greater. And while the drought may be declared “over,” water usage is something we should still be conscious of.
“It’s not thoughtful to go from a closed-tight policy to free-use,” said Coronado resident Barbara James, who thinks that the restrictions lift will contribute to more water waste. “The management of water is crucial to farming.”
For now, the farmers continue selling their best products at our market, hoping the slightly higher food prices won’t deter the local residents from buying. And though the drought may be over, don’t let that fool you into thinking prices will drop anytime soon.
“The price of water has gone up more than double since the restriction was lifted,” Hillebrecht said. “And a discount is not offered to farmers anymore.”
So the next time you’re at the market, scoffing at the price of your favorite peas, remember all of the work, struggle, money, and effort put into growing that beautiful crop. And the next time you take a long shower, think of the more useful ways for all of that precious water.
“If we lose our farmers … well that’s what feeds the country!” James said. “Everyone needs food.”
- Click here for a map of California’s reservoirs and how full they currently are.
- San Diego Water Authority—for up-to-date news and water board meeting schedules.
- California Department of Water Resources—see how our state is managing our water
Thoughtful Ways to Conserve Water
- Shorter showers. Time them for 5 minutes. And don’t shave with the water running.
- Sweep your driveways, patios and sidewalks.
- Water your grass and plants at night.
- Use energy-efficient appliances, like dish washers, toilets and washing machines
- Fix those leaks! Not only will it save the state water, it’ll save you money on your water bill.