What should locals know about the water supply situation in the Pájaro Valley, and what are your ideas for how to address the problems?
We have a major, underreported problem in the Pájaro Valley. Years of drought are worsening our already depleted aquifer and the less rain we receive the more water we have to pump from it.
Whereas Santa Cruz captures surface water, the Pájaro Valley has had the historic luxury of a humongous aquifer below our feet. This has allowed our area to be one of the most productive agricultural producers in the world. Residing in a specialized climate, we can grow valuable crops like strawberries and raspberries, making us formidable international players on the world market.
Ideally, under favorable patterns of rain, our water usage would harmonize with our natural aquifer replenishment via rain. However, for decades we have been extracting more water than is viable as the water necessary to grow strawberries instead of apples, for example, requires nearly four times the acre feet of water.
Although typically filled this time of year, our sloughs are also extremely low, resulting in increased brush fires. The quality of habitat for wildlife is also compromised as many migrating birds come to our area precisely because of our usually plush wetlands.
Nonetheless, the bigger problem is the ongoing threat of saltwater intrusion. As our aquifer’s freshwater supply decreases, so too does our resistance to saltwater contamination. When saltwater begins to intrude inland—in spaces where freshwater predominates—the soil above becomes infertile. Since the water provided from natural rainfall is scarce, this puts more demands upon wells to pump water, and increased likelihood that coastal sources will dry up and be still more susceptible to intrusion.
Accounting for roughly 85 percent of all groundwater withdrawal, the agriculture community has felt the most pressure from the challenges of intrusion and overdraft. These challenges have been the source of much discussion and debate.
The Pájaro Valley Water Management Agency has provided exceptional leadership concerning these issues. Sued a number of times for increasing water prices, they continue to seek novel methods to tackle our structural impasses. These ideas have included strategic conservation, pursuing greater water retention from College Lake, importing water from the San Luis Reservoir, and calling for an increase in fallowed farmland—some more feasible than others
Many of these solutions would require big state and federal dollars. Nonetheless, we’ve seen significant improvements in efficiency. In years past, it was common to see sprinkler systems across the valley as drivers would often get a splash across their windows. Drip irrigation—which literally drips into plants where they are–now predominates. Some, such as the Eiskamp family, have installed electronic soil probe systems with wireless capacity, enabling precise watering measurements that prevent overwatering.
Such advances in agricultural technology have occurred over the past decade alone. Additionally, farmers are warming to the idea of fallowed land, which undoubtedly affects profits. Nonetheless, solutions needed to address these problems are very big and long-term solutions—and continuously preoccupy our local Pájaro Valley Water Management Agency.
Beyond applying for and receiving grant money, we need greater awareness from residents. These matters are of great importance to our valley, local economy and future generations. Planting environmentally friendly flora or teaching our children to conserve is important not only for preserving water resources but also because of how such actions intercede with our larger ecology.
President Barack Obama, Gov. Jerry Brown and others have called for a 20 percent reduction in water consumption—an exceptional burden for agriculture under conditions of drought. Whereas I hope to somehow meet that call to action, I am more hopeful that the decree of crisis will lead more to appreciate our challenges and work toward sustainable solutions.