Brown is the New Green
BY: BROOKE BECHER
As entire lakes in the San Joaquin Valley evaporate into small pools and farmers siphon groundwater from their land for every last drop, the lawns in Long Beach turn from green to brown.
California’s most recent drought now covers 100 percent of the state, graduating the region to emergent, severe conditions. Residents of some of the most prepared cities like Long Beach are beginning to see some of its immediate consequences.
“We have a diversity of [water] sources here … but there are some places in California that are running out,” said Dr. Suzanne Dallman, California State University Long Beach Associate Professor of Geography and former full-term five-year Long Beach Water Commissioner. “Their reservoirs run dry and they’re out of luck. They have to buy water. They have to truck water in.”
2014 is California’s record-warmest year in 118 years of records according to the National Weather Service.
A couple of dry winters and only six inches of annual rainfall later, the state-wide warnings became hefty municipal restrictions that trickled into the Long Beach way of life.
In January, California Governor Brown declared a drought State of Emergency. By the end of February, the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners swiftly declared an “Imminent Water Supply Shortage” that proposed a four-step water conservation plan adopted by the City of Long Beach.
This plan prohibits residents from watering their lawns on any day outside of Monday, Thursday and Saturday between 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., public places from serving drinking water to customers before ordered and landscapes from being irrigated for more than 10 to 20 minutes depending on the owner’s sprinkler heads.
“The [Long Beach] Water Department doesn’t really have the staff to police it,” said Dallman. “Private water companies are profit-making institutions, municipal utilities are not … we can’t raise rates just to punish people.”
Long Beach sources more than half of its own groundwater, pumped from active wells within the city, and imports the rest from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The ratio of imported water to groundwater has decreased, driving Long Beach in the direction of water self-sustainability.
Whether it’s the orange that has been laced in preservatives and used as a hacky sack by 10 year olds running amok in a Vons somewhere or the orange being sold fresh for a bargain at a local farmers market, it most likely came from farmland outside of the city.
Unless residents already grow their own produce, prices will soon raise, like the cornstalks used to.
“City regulation reduced watering by 20 percent. There’s less produce to sell, so prices go up,” said Chris Glass, a partner to his brother’s farm in Oxnard, as he husked and hacked away at the pale, faded-yellow corn at one of the six certified markets hosted by Harbor Area Farmers Markets (HAFM) on Saturday in Cerritos. “It really does affect everything from the bottom up.”
Of the six markets, HAFM hosts three of them in Long Beach in uptown near Bixby Knolls, downtown near 3rd and Pacific St. and in southeast regions of the city near Marine Stadium. There is one market held on every day of the week except Tuesdays at different times.
Dale Whitney, 25 year HAFM’s market manager, said that every farmer has their own story with how they are handling the drought.
The energetic, larger than life Whitney walked down the long strip between booths that were selling everything from fresh produce to flowers, popcorn and jewelry. A clown twisted balloons. A musician, clad in cowboy boots and a hat, played the violin.
The old man’s fluorescent, highlighter-yellow shirt reflected his light attitude even when speaking of bleak stories he’s heard from the farmers who work within his six-market circuit about their threatened livelihoods.
“He’s not even doing as many markets as he used to,” Whitney said about a cherry farmer named Mike Hopkins after trouble he faced within the blooming season. Farmers settling with less of a variety or limiting their rounds in the markets are some of the patterns he has seen this year, he said.
Whitney then talked about a man who has survived this season but is unsure of what’s to come in the following year.
Arnulfo Garcia has been farming since 1972 at his family farm in Kingsburg.
He is completely reliant on his own groundwater well since the city has cut off all irrigation for farmers in his area. The city requires farmers to add their name onto a six-month waiting list for request of drilling a new well, the only alternative before purchasing water.
“Let’s say in the middle of the season the pump goes out,” said Garcia, “Then I’m done. It’s a long waiting list.”
For Ronnie Gonzaga, importing water is the only option to keep his crops alive.
He owns four farms. Two of his most prominent lands are in Tara Bella where he grows tangerines and Strathmore where his best-selling jujubes grow.
“I have 30 acres of dead trees,” he said, noting that instead of buying water, it’s more practical to dig up and replant the trees entirely. In his district, water is around $1800 per acre-foot. “I only water the jujube because that’s the one that makes money.”
“I used to harvest about 300 beans on the hill, now if I’m lucky I will harvest 10 beans,” he said.
Before the drought, Gonzaga said that the water table was only 40 feet from the surface of his farmland. Since the drought and spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in labor on rerouting his pipes, the water table exceeds 90 feet.
On the other hand, those in the farming industry like Massis Boujikian said that it’s all a matter of being prepared.
“Everyone’s affected in one way or another, but not necessarily us,” said Boujikan of Boujikian Family Farms in Raisin City, south of Fresno. “We have our own drills, we have our own pumps. We had put drip lines on everything at our farms from the very beginning to save water 30 years ago.”
He has worked with his brother since before 1983 farming and selling a variety of nuts and dried fruit. Business had been as good as ever since their market sold out for the first time two to three weeks ago.
“In Florida, they have meters and you have to pay per gallon,” Boujikian said. ”I don’t know why they don’t do that in California, then people would stop wasting water.”
In Long Beach, efforts to actively curtail the drought and promote long-term water conservation are in effect.
Rebate programs like SoCal Watersmart have reserved almost 300 water-efficient devices residentially and 7,000 commercially in August, according to the Long Beach Water Department’s website.
In addition, government funding for the Lawn-to-Garden rebate program, which replaces grass for semi-arid climate friendly turf, has increased from $2.50 to $3 or $3,000 for an entire project, according to the City of Long Beach’s website.
As of this year, Long Beach Water Department’s lead on expanding previously limited groundwater storage was approved through the Long Beach Judgment. It was proposed in 2009 during the previous drought.
So, what’s our crisis point?
“I’m not sure anyone knows that,” said Dallman. “We always have wet and dry cycles here. That is our normal here. We need to have the infrastructure and have the policies in place to adapt.”
In the most advanced of stages, cities have instilled residential and commercial ration plans in the past. California’s conditions in the 1970s had government officials writing up fat fines for incompliance as opposed to Los Angeles County’s more gentle, educational approach during the lighter 2009 drought, touching on residents’ civic duties, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“I don’t know if we’ll actually get to rationing,” said Dallman. “I think the biggest challenge for the [Long Beach] Water Department is keeping peoples interest in conservation.”