As drought drags on, South Bay farmers struggle and worry

Editor’s Note: This story is part of the annual Mosaic journalism workshop for Bay Area high school students a two-week intensive course in journalism. Students of the program report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

If you were to visit the Anderson Reservoir at Morgan Hill, there would be nothing there but a dried-up gorge with whitewashed stones showing the old water level.

While the empty lake is tied to a 10-year restoration program for its dam, future water levels after construction could remain dangerously low due to drought. This could be the future of many nearby water sources.

As a drought looms over the western and southwestern US states this year, declining water flow from local, state and federal reservoirs has endangered the agricultural industry and farmers. California’s main reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, are currently filled to less than 50% of their maximum capacity, resulting in reduced yields.

A dry river is seen from above in Santa Clara Central Park in San Jose, California on Thursday, June 16, 2022. (Stephen Arreola for Mosaic Journalism)

“This year we produced less than expected,” said Daniel Vasquez of Ripon’s Villanueva Farms, which grows mainly cherries, apricots and figs. “Water rights were quite complex.”

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, California is considered the largest producer of livestock and produce. By comparison, other states such as Iowa mainly produce crops such as corn, corn, and soybeans. California’s diversity results in large differences in water use for each crop, resulting in the state ranking first in total water use compared to other states.

Gabriel Diaz of South San Jose works with local farms across the state, buying and selling fruits and vegetables across the country.

“The drought is a huge problem for us and local farmers because there is no fruit, and we influence markets around the world. California is a leading food producer, so drought is a big deal,” Diaz said.

Diaz believes that farming practices should shift to smarter ways to conserve water.

“One of the biggest problems for water is when you destroy soil structure. When you destroy this structure, all this water goes into the atmosphere,” Diaz said. “When it rains, it won’t penetrate as deep because there’s no structure anymore where it could easily get into these cracks and all. Then, when the sun comes up and it gets hot in Fresno, all that water will go back into the atmosphere.”

As regions across the state try to limit their residents’ water use, water rates have risen in part to act as a deterrent against unnecessary consumption. Some counties and federal agencies have cut off the direct flow to farms in order to leave enough for their residents.

While potential water cuts and water shortages worry farmers, some remain optimistic.

“I think it will get better over the years and then get worse, as if the arid climate got worse but bounced back and got better — like it changes every year,” Vazquez said.

As the drought drags on, farmers will continue to have faith in both Mother Nature and their local water agencies.

“It all depends on community and government assistance to small farmers. Every year is different and as a farmer you keep up with the weather and you definitely need water. As long as water rates remain good, we can continue to do so,” said James Medina, salesman and farm worker at Medina Berry Farms in Watsonville.

Others believe that the efforts of water utilities are helping. “I think they are doing their best. I think it’s a slow process trying to change everything around,” Diaz said. “We just have to be smarter than the rest of us about our water use practices and then advocate for more efficient tillage practices.”

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