When people think of California, most envision sunny beaches, surfing, skiing, and those famous “Board Meetings” commercial spots that fueled the state’s tourism campaign. It seems like a true paradise—and, I can tell you, after 23 years of living here, it usually still feels like it.
Still California is ripe with ironies – spend a day in LA and you feel a world away from those sunny beaches. Similarly, the state is the strongest agricultural entity in the nation, boasting a $37 billion+ agricultural economy. But at the same time it falters in the face of a phenomenal water crisis.
The vast majority of water in the state’s Central Valley comes from a combination of groundwater pumps and water carried through the California Aqueduct, which transports water from the San Joaquin Delta to the Valley and into Southern California. This means that to irrigate the over 400 different types of crops that this state provides, we are employing traditional irrigation techniques and flooding fields. On top of that, it’s the same watershed that provides water for one of the world’s most famous cities- Los Angeles.
During years of drought, both farmers and citizens call for more water; and when the Delta cannot provide enough, groundwater pumping increases dramatically. This has some rather complicated side-effects. Groundwater is a finite resource. Just like any other natural system, it takes time and years of saturation to build underground water stores, and increased pumping during drought years (especially as climates are experiencing changes and becoming drier), depletes groundwater resources. After years of stability, the Central Valley began sinking again as groundwater became increasingly necessary. Makes sense right? Bringing water up makes space for the earth to sink. Above just a general concern, a sinking Central Valley could create severe damage to California Aqueduct- the lifeline of both agriculture and communities in the southern half of the state.
Maybe this should make us wonder: Will our methods be sustainable, or even, reliable as we increase our agricultural economy and continue to build populations in water-dependent Southern California?
The overall point of this piece isn’t to critique the way California operates; we are, after all, looking at an incredibly diverse state, and its needs are no small matter, especially with respect to water. California’s water policy is increasingly important, and the only sure way to manage water usage is through conservation and better practices.
There are existing methods which can conserve water agriculturally, allowing more for populations, and simultaneously providing local, healthy and sustainable food throughout the state. Recirculating farms provide a unique and interesting alternative to traditional farming practices in a water-concerned state.
To introduce the idea: recirculating farms use continually cleaned, recycled water as the basis of food production. Instead of planting crops in soil, crops are provided nutrient rich water. Some folks are familiar with hydroponics – this is a form of that. Some recirculating farms grow more than plants – the water used in to grow the produce is the same water that these farms use to raise edible fish. This is called “aquaponics” (a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture – fish farming). The waste the fish produce provides important nutrients for plants and may even be used as fertilizer for soil-based farming practice. The combination of fish and herb/vegetable/fruit production makes these farms very viable, while the space and water requirements make them convenient, maintainable and accessible in almost any community.
Recirculating farms are remarkably sustainable, clean, and possess the rare gift of spatial efficiency. In a fractional amount of space, these small farms can produce an incredible amount of food. And, as an additional bonus, these farms can produce many of the same crops with approximately half(or even less) the water use.
Water loss in a well-designed recirculating system is minimal- between approximately 1 and 1.5% daily. In this system, water is conserved and reused; it doesn’t drain out, contaminate or relocate. The only notable water loss is through evaporation, absorption and water removed with waste. Because of recycling techniques, water only needs to be regularly added in limited amounts. Can you feel that? The valley just stopped sinking for a moment! And keeping the water in one place requires much less imported water from other areas of the state. I think the Aqueduct just breathed a sigh of relief!
This should ring especially loud in the ears of Californians. With 70% of fresh water being used in agriculture, alternate innovative farming practices should be considered. And with the potential damage to California waterways, finding ways to reduce the need for groundwater pumping and water transportation will become priority both for agriculture and consumption. As illustrated by ideas such as Props 13 and 50 (decade-old drinking water conservation efforts) to protect thirsty populations, populations need water every bit as badly as almonds. By conserving water locally, we could redirect fresh water away from fields and into homes.
This doesn’t suggest that recirculating farms are the silver-bullet to California’s water problems. But when you consider just how much lettuce comes from Salinas, CA or how many strawberries from Watsonville, CA, it might be a very important new opportunity to grow fresh food. Not only could the same amount of produce be generated from these recirculating farms, it could be through a smaller space, without the use of harmful chemicals, without constant drip or sprinkler irrigation and it could help farms moving toward the organic side to create a clean and efficient system while simultaneously adding a sustainable fish-farm into the business model.
While California agriculture may not change overnight, adding recirculating farms into the equation could greatly expand its agricultural potential. Imagine Los Angeles- the desert city of So Cal- growing fresh organic strawberries on rooftops. No shipping, no harmful chemicals and no runoff pollution.
All this using so much less water? From where I stand, L.A. could look a lot less like a desert and a lot more like an oasis.