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Epic Drought Forces California Grower to Re-think Water

NEWMAN, CA – California’s drought is challenging for all farmers, but it’s especially daunting for growers like Barat Bisabri, who is being forced to re-think his entire business model when it comes to water.

“It’s not sustainable if it stays this way,” said Bisabri, who has seen a 10-fold jump in his water bills the past two years.

Bisabri, managing partner of Shiraz Ranch who grows citrus fruits, almonds and other crops on 1,200 acres, has the financial misfortune of having junior water rights – meaning, when there’s not enough water for all water-rights holders, he’s one of the first to be cut off.

He feels his junior status every day as two of the state’s biggest water aqueducts – the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct – send rivers of water by his fields in parched Central Valley.

“The same as last year, (I received) a zero percent water allocation,” said Bisabri, standing in a barren field that used to be dotted with valuable grapefruit trees. He let them die last year and they’ve since been dug up and turned into mulch.

Barat Bisabri stands in front of mulched grapefruit trees
Barat Bisabri stands in front of mulched grapefruit trees

Bisabri is surviving by negotiating a patchwork quilt of water supplies from other area growers, including rice growers who are fallowing their fields, a landowner with plentiful groundwater and other farmers who are able to withdraw water from the Delta-Mendota Canal due to their more senior water rights.

Every drop he is buying is expensive. “Three years ago, I was paying about 80 grand ($80,000) for my water at this ranch,” he said. “This year we’re looking at $1.1 to $1.2 million.”

With the water he is getting, he’s managing its use smartly.

All of his orchards are using water-saving pumps, drip irrigation and micro sprinklers that spray a light stream of water onto roots with clarion accuracy. The low-pressure sprinklers alone reduce water use on his fruit trees by 25 percent.

He’s doubled the amount of gypsum he’s applying on his fields so that the soil is more permeable, thus avoiding water runoff.

He’s also left some his farmland unused by removing 20 percent of his producing orchards, although some are being re-planted.

While he’s “barely turning a profit” right now, the future looks far worse if the drought persists and new substitute supplies cannot be found.

“If this continues one more year, there will be a lot of shakeups, with many orchards going dry,” he said, noting that he’s been saved financially by high commodity prices, especially for water-hungry almonds, which are now selling for $4 a pound, compared to less than $1 a pound in the early 2000s.

Recycled wastewater – a key priority of the $7.5 billion state water bond approved last year and Ceres’ Connect the Drops campaign in California – is one of the water resources Bisabri is eyeing for a future supply.

The specific project he has in mind is a new pipeline that would transport 26,500 acre-feet of recycled wastewater – an acre-foot is one acre filled to a depth of a foot – from the towns of Modesto and Turlock to Bisabri’s parched Del Puerto Water District.

The proposed $100 million project – which would be financed by the state’s revolving loan fund but paid for ultimately by area farmers – could be built by as early as 2017. The treated wastewater is currently being discharged into the San Joaquin River.

“If it works out, it could supply 25 percent, and ultimately up to 40 percent, of my water,” Bisabri said.

Bisabri has other ideas for tackling the state’s water crisis, but he’s the first to admit they’re controversial and unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Among those: tighter management of groundwater use; loosening the federal Endangered Species Act which forces occasional water diversions to protect fish species; and, last but not least, re-visiting the state’s antiquated water rights system which exempts many senior water rights holders from water use limits, including the state’s new mandatory restrictions.

“You can still drive around and see (wasteful) flood irrigation because of these water rights,” he said.

Barat Bisabri will be speaking on a May 13 panel – “Field Notes on the California Drought” –  at the Ceres annual conference in San Francisco.

About the Author

Peyton Fleming is senior communications director at Ceres, a nonprofit organization mobilizing business and investor leadership on global sustainability challenges. Connect with him on Twitter @PeytonCeres or by email fleming@ceres.org. Learn more about Ceres at www.ceres.org/valuingeverydrop.