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 in the program report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

If you were to visit Anderson Reservoir in Morgan Hill, there would be nothing but a dried-up gorge, with bleached stones to show old water levels.

While the empty lake is attributed to its dam’s 10-year restoration program, future water levels post-construction may remain dangerously low due to the drought. This could be the future of many nearby water sources.

With this year’s drought looming over the western and southwestern United States, lower water output from local, state and federal reservoirs has put the agricultural industry and farmers at risk. California’s major reservoirs, Lakes Shasta and Oroville, are currently under 50% maximum capacity, which has reduced harvests.

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

“This year we produced less than expected,” said Daniel Vazquez of Ripon’s Villanueva Farms, which primarily grows cherries, apricots and figs. “Water rights were kind of hard.”

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, California ranks as the largest producer of livestock and produce. In comparison, other states such as Iowa primarily produce crops such as corn, grain, and soybeans. California’s diversity results in large differences in water usage per crop, ranking the state first in total water use compared with other states.

Gabriel Diaz of South San Jose works with local farms across the state to buy and sell fruits and vegetables to the rest of the country.

“Having a drought is a huge problem for us and for the farmers there, because there’s no fruit and we’re affecting markets around the world. California is a top producer of food, so drought is a serious business,” Diaz said.

Diaz said he believes that farming practices must shift to smarter water-conserving methods.

“One of the biggest problems for water is when you break up the soil structure. When you break that structure apart, all that water goes out to the atmosphere,” Diaz said. “When it does rain, it’s not going to really infiltrate as deep because there’s not much structure anymore, where it could easily go in those cracks and everything. Then, when the sun comes up, and it’s blaring hot in Fresno, all that water’s going to go back up to the atmosphere.”

As regions across the state attempt to restrict their residents’ water usage, water rates have gone up in part to act as a deterrent against unnecessary consumption. Some counties and federal agencies have cut off direct flow to farms to retain enough for its residents.

Although potential water cutoffs and shortages worry farmers, some remain optimistic.

“I think it’s going to improve over the years and then go down, like the drought climate might get bad but bounce back and get better — like every year changes,” Vazquez said.

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

“It all depends on community and government help for small farmers. Every year is different, and as a farmer, you go with the weather and you need water for sure. As water rates stay good, we’ll be able to keep doing it,” said James Medina, a vendor and worker for Medina Berry Farms in Watsonville.

Others believe that the efforts of the water districts are helping. “I think they’re doing the best they can. I think it’s a slow process to try to change all this stuff around,” Diaz said.  “We have to be just all of us smarter about our water practices, and then advocating for better soil practices.”

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