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To Counter Strain on Groundwater Supply, California Berry Grower Employs Innovative Water Management Strategies

July 9, 2013 |

Photo Credit: Driscoll's

Photo Credit: Driscoll’s

Driscoll’s strawberries, blueberries and raspberries are famous throughout the nation as some of the sweetest handful of anti-oxidants you can find. Grown in the Parajo Valley of California’s central coast region, Driscoll’s has been operating as a family business for more than 100 years.

But generations of expanding agriculture have put a severe strain on the groundwater supply that irrigates the region. Water is being pumped at twice the rate that the aquifer can safely provide, and as a result of over-pumping, seawater intrusion continues to diminish and contaminate the basin’s water supply. Driscoll’s – like farmers across the nation – is faced with finding innovative methods to counter the shrinking water supply.

Seedstock spoke with Emily Paddock, Driscoll’s water resource manager, to find out what they are doing about the challenge.

Q: How are you approaching water conservation issues?

A: Driscoll’s sustainability goal is to better manage our resources and waste to ensure that our business, communities and the earth thrive for generations to come. Water resources are one of the top three sustainability priorities throughout the Americas and water resources in the Pajaro Valley became the first sustainability issue that Driscoll’s addressed using a multi-stakeholder methodology.

That being said, our approach to water conservation is a learning process, as we continue to develop solutions to address our water concerns.

In the Pajaro Valley, one challenge we have is an over-drafted groundwater basin, which has resulted in seawater intrusion.  Our goal is to efficiently use this limited resource, while maintaining a successful agricultural industry. Another challenge revolves around water quality. The Pajaro Valley has multiple federally listed polluted streams and some areas where there is groundwater with elevated nitrate levels. Our goal is to support our growers and assist them with regulatory compliance while also finding innovative and reasonable solutions to protect water quality.

Our approach to water resources includes a strategic decision to be a leader within the community, to bring other stakeholders to the table so we can all work together try to find a solution.  Working on our own water footprint alone is not a comprehensive solution; the community needs to work together towards a common goal. It will take a diverse portfolio of solutions to balance the aquifer including: retiring, fallowing, and rotating land, conservation and recharge projects.

The Community Water Dialogue (CWD) was formed in 2010 to address the sometimes volatile and emotional topic of the water supply in the Pajaro Valley. Since its onset, the group has included a wide variety of stakeholders, including Driscoll’s other landowners, growers, academics, nonprofits, rural residents, government representatives, and environmental leaders. All of CWD’s members agree to the fundamental principles of the effort:

  • A commitment to protect the Pajaro Valley as an important agriculture resource
  • Recognition that the solution will not be an importation pipeline
  • A willingness to pursue diverse strategies which entail costs and sacrifices in order to bring our aquifer into balance

Driscoll’s participation and leadership in the CWD exemplifies our approach to water conservation issues. In addition, we actively partner with the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, the Resource Conservation Districts of Santa Cruz and Monterey, and the University of California Cooperative Extension on water-related initiatives and research.

Q: How are your farmers adapting to water scarcity?

A: Our growers in Pajaro Valley are adopting a wide spectrum of water conservation practices. Growers, ranch managers and irrigators participate in semiannual Driscoll’s “Irrigation and Nutrient Management” workshops to continue to learn about strategies to efficiently irrigate and fertilize their crops. Driscoll’s researchers and Growers work with the UC Cooperative Extension to develop irrigation and nutrient management tools and participate in many pilot projects.

In addition, Driscoll’s growers in the Pajaro Valley are recording and reporting their water use to Driscoll’s this year. Driscoll’s is facilitating this required water reporting by supporting the development of a telemetry network, where real-time water meter data is tracked and reported. Driscoll’s growers have also independently invested in water-use tracking and many have incorporated monthly irrigation reviews into their regular production practices.

Q: What are some of the techniques that can be employed, i.e. drip tape, etc?

A: Most of our growers only use drip irrigation. All of the growers monitor soil moisture for irrigation management. Some use soil probes, but many use real-time soil moisture monitoring instruments such as Hortau. The CWD has supported this effort by establishing a Wireless Irrigation Network to reduce the start-up costs for growers to use the Hortau technology. Whichever technology they utilize, the growers have adapted to water being a necessary component of the production dialogue.

We officially launched an aquifer recharge pilot in early 2012. It’s the first basin to be built collaboratively between private and public agencies (the Resource Conservation District, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the University of California, Santa Cruz) to test, build and monitor a recharge pilot. Hydrologic estimates from UCSC predict that the basin will capture 200 acre feet of water per year (eight acre feet per day of rainfall for 30 days of rain). We hope that it can serve as a model and that we can eventually leverage what we learn to help other landowners replicate the model in any water-constrained area.

Q: Water scarcity is an issue that is long-term, complicated and requires all stakeholders to be on board. What do you see happening in the future?

A: Within Driscoll’s, we have formed the Pajaro Valley Water Task Force (PVWTF), which includes Driscoll growers and Driscoll’s employees from the sustainability, production and global research departments. The PVWTF has four main focuses to address water supply and water quality in the Pajaro Valley: Grower Education and Training, Water Quality, Water Use Tracking and Irrigation Research and Technology.

Our focus is currently concentrated on the Pajaro Valley, but in the future we would like to expand our water initiatives to the other regions where we grow. Each region will have unique challenges, but we hope to continue to work on water conservation issues with our research-based, community and grower-integrated, proactive approach.

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