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California Farmers Innovate to Fight Drought

In the arid Golden State, growers and agricultural researchers have been developing techniques to conserve precious water and use it more efficiently. Here are some things they’ve learned.

Written by Padma Nagappan Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
In this Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016 photo, water falls from a drip irrigation system in a vineyard managed by Mike Stearns near Firebaugh, Calif. In an effort to reduce the high cost of water, many farmers like Stearns, now use water-efficient drip irrigation for their crops.Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

When the famous statistic that says it takes 1.1 gallons (4.2 liters) of water to grow one almond in drought-stricken California hit the headlines, the nutritious, but water-sucking nut was immediately cast as the villain.

Almond growers were vilified for planting thirsty crops that require year-round watering while the state endured drought, and the agriculture industry as a whole was condemned by people who thought it should suffer the same mandatory cutbacks as urban users.

But California’s farmers were tackling the drought in other ways. Some were leaving fields fallow, increasing groundwater pumping (in some places to unsustainable levels) and experimenting with switching to less water-intensive crops.

One of the biggest gains, though, may come from techniques that make water use far more efficient.

Researchers from the University of California Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources (UCANR) and farmers have been working for years on ways of reducing water use. Techniques include switching from flood to drip irrigation or sprinklers; deploying soil sensors; using deficit irrigation where a crop is subjected to stress from getting less than the required amount of water; or tapping new technology to determine the optimum schedule for watering.

However, progress in water conservation and innovation has been slow but steady.

“Irrigation improvements take time. It’s not like you can throw a switch and convert everything,” explained Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources. “And there’s no one ‘bang, bang’ technology.”

How Almonds Have Tightened Their Water Belt

On the Front Lines of Sea-Level Rise, Sewage Treatment Plants Adapt

Some coastal sewage treatment plants are beginning to experience challenges from climate change, such as backflow from seawater and potential discharge problems. Two experts explain how facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area are addressing these risks.  

About the Author

Padma Nagappan

Padma Nagappan is a San Diego-based health and environment reporter who writes frequently about California’s drought and water issues, and explores the ramifications of a prolonged drought from different angles. Find her on Twitter: @savvywordsmith and on

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