Organic farmer Al Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood walks through rows of his aromatic stone fruit orchard, showing off sweet nectarines that thrive in the microclimate and rich soils in his corner of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Weighing on his mind is the drought and the possibility that the water he needs to keep his trees alive will soon be curtailed by the state.
“A curtailment would be disastrous for me and for all farmers in California, but particularly for small, family farmers like myself. We tend to be operating on a shoelace and don’t have a lot of capital,” Courchesne said. “I’ve got money invested. I’ve got infrastructure that needs to be paid for. I have 150 people working for me—these families depend on Frog Hollow Farm for their livelihood. And our food feeds hundreds of thousands of people.”
Courchesne is among several thousand water rights holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta watershed who could have supplies shut off in response to drought emergency curtailment regulations adopted last week by the State Water Resources Control Board. With harvest coming to a close for many farmers, Courchesne said he still has more harvest work ahead.
“Even after we harvest the peaches, nectarines or cherries off of the tree, we still have to keep the trees alive. We’ve got millions of dollars invested and those trees represent our income for the next 20 or 30 years,” Courchesne said.
Water from the delta contributes to the water supply for more than two-thirds of Californians and is used to irrigate millions of acres of farmland.
Delta water districts, such as Courchesne’s district, the Bryon-Bethany Irrigation District in Contra Costa County, have some of the oldest water rights in the state—riparian and pre-1914 rights, in addition to a contract with the federal Central Valley Project. BBID’s post-1914 rights through the CVP went from a 5% water allocation to zero. After last week’s adoption of curtailment regulations, he expects cutbacks to senior water rights.
Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau senior counsel, in addressing the state water board last week, said, “Most of the (Delta) water rights holders discussed here have a face behind them—a farmer, farm family, farm worker or it could be just a person eating a salad. But there’s a face behind all of this, including my family.”
“In general, farmers understand drought and they understand lean rain years, but they don’t understand the downward slide in water reliability that we are facing in California,” Scheuring said. “At the same time, we’re watching the slow permitting of new storage and infrastructure projects and the failure to execute on what might get us out of these places called curtailment, things like Proposition 1.”
Proposition 1, approved with wide voter support in 2014, was supposed to lead to major water storage projects to prevent crises in drought years. Work on getting these projects constructed has been slow.
Back in the orchard in Brentwood, Courchesne is preparing for less water. He said he plans to continue farming sustainably by using micro-irrigation and regenerating the soil to build fertility and nutrients. He said he hopes this will help his trees be more resilient and survive.
The San Francisco Bay Area native discovered a love of farming in his 20s and in 1976, started his Brentwood farm with about 12 acres of organic peaches. He has expanded the farm to 280 acres, specializing in peaches, plums, nectarines and other crops.
Courchesne said he keeps farming because “I love it. I get to work with nature, I get to be outdoors, and I work with great people. We’re that kind of a farm that is integrated into the community.”
Noting that “farmers are cutting back their water use more than anybody else,” Courchesne underscored the need for more water conservation by all Californians.
“Everybody has to drink, everybody has to take a bath and cook food, but we don’t have to water our golf courses and cemeteries and lawns,” he said. “Millions of gallons go to waste every day because people let their water run while brushing their teeth, so let’s not target the farmers. We have the optimal conditions in California to grow food for the nation.”
Many farms have access to groundwater wells. But the Sustainability Groundwater Management Act requires farms to reduce pumping to prevent depleting groundwater supplies.
The Delta curtailments aren’t California’s only water supply challenge. For water right holders in the Upper Russian River watershed, the water board issued curtailment orders on Aug. 2. This makes it illegal to draw or divert water from the Upper Russian River, except as needed to ensure human health and safety.
The state water board also released an analysis of the Lower Russian River demonstrating that approximately 222 right holders need to be curtailed to meet demands on the river. The board anticipates issuing orders to these right holders this week. The agency plans to consider a drought emergency regulation for the Scott River and Shasta River watersheds at its Aug. 17 meeting.
Unless the state’s drought declaration is lifted, the curtailment regulations will remain in place into the next water year, which begins Oct. 1. The water board asks Delta water users to subscribe to the Delta Drought list or to frequently visit the board’s Delta Watershed Drought Information page at www.waterboards.ca.gov/drought/delta/.
Meanwhile, Courchesne said he just wants people to understand where their food comes from. He added, “People say, ‘Oh, this is devastating to the farmers’ but what about the people that eat food? Everybody wants to eat. We have to have water to grow food.”