CSS3Pie trigger
Menu  University of Minnesota

A thirst for solutions

Cannon Michael (Image 1 of 10)

Cannon Michael, 43, intends to harvest this durum wheat field for his sister’s two bakeries in San Francisco. His mission is to preserve farming in California, despite layers of agricultural regulations and the state’s historic drought. He’s president of the nearly 11,000-acre Bowles Farming Company near Los Banos, Calif., and his farming lineage reaches back to the 1800s. His great-great-great grandfather, Henry Miller, immigrated from Germany and built the famed 1.4 million-acre empire of Miller & Lux cattle company. March 1, 2015

Cotton was king (Image 2 of 10)

A field is prepared for cotton planting later this spring. Historically, cotton was king on the arid west side of the Central Valley, according to farmers Cannon Michael and Chris Hurd. In the last 15 years, many farmers switched to the more lucrative — and thirstier — almond crop. The Coast Ranges, which bound the western side of the Central Valley, can be seen in the background. March 1, 2015

The Delta-Mendota Canal (Image 3 of 10)

The Delta-Mendota Canal, part of the Central Valley Project, supplies water to the Bowles Farming Company’s tomato fields. PVC pipes are laid out beside the canal for drip irrigation installation. Nearly half of the Bowles’ several thousand acres have been converted from flood irrigation to drip. Although it costs about $1,500 an acre in materials and labor to install, it conserves a significant amount of water, which is critical to surviving a fourth year of California’s historic drought. March 2, 2015

Brief shower (Image 4 of 10)

A rainbow appears over an almond orchard after a brief March shower passed through. Winter is usually the rainy season in the Central Valley, but that pattern has been disrupted during California’s extended drought. January saw nearly no rainfall at all in Fresno County and just over an inch in February, according to NOAA records. California supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds. March 4, 2015

“A treacherous, sickening situation” (Image 5 of 10)

Surrounded by pistachio trees, fourth-generation farmer Chris Hurd isn’t sure his farming operation will survive a fourth year of California’s historic drought. “I stayed alive last year,” he says, “but I’m not sure I’ll make it this year. It’s a treacherous, sickening situation.” His pistachio trees are fairly drought tolerant, but he and his son had to take 120 acres of lucrative almond trees out of production last summer. They’re considering removing another 80 acres of almond trees this season. March 3, 2015

Millerton Lake (Image 6 of 10)

The boat ramp in the photo is far from the Millerton Lake shoreline as California enters its fourth year of drought. After another dry winter, Millerton Lake was at 39 percent of capacity at the time of writing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s daily lake level report. The reservoir created by the Friant Dam captures and manages the San Joaquin River. In an unprecedented collaboration last year, senior water users conserved 13,500 acre-feet of water from Millerton Lake so junior water users could purchase it at affordable rates. March 3, 2015

Farmers, Congress and environmentalists (Image 7 of 10)

A dead almond orchard surrounds a sign beside Interstate 5, which runs through California’s Central Valley. For years, farmers have blamed Congress and environmentalists for diverting water from their fields to the Sacramento Delta. An extended drought is drying up the fertile 50-mile-wide valley, which runs 450 miles through California’s interior. March 4, 2015

Drip irrigation (Image 8 of 10)

Sprinklers soak a tomato field at Bowles Farming Company near Los Banos, Calif. The water seeps into the ground so thirsty plants’ roots can reach moisture deep in the subsoil during the Central Valley’s long, hot summer. Before the tomatoes are planted in spring, 40-foot sections of pipe will be connected for drip irrigation use. March 2, 2015

Drip irrigation (Image 9 of 10)

Water from this canal on Bowles Farming Company land will be carried to nearby fields by drip irrigation, which conserves significant amounts of water. March 2, 2015

Almonds (Image 10 of 10)

Almond hulls from last season mingle with spring blossoms in a mature almond orchard watered by drip irrigation. The life span of an almond tree is 20 to 25 years, and trees bear fruit three or four years after planting. California, the only state in the U.S. that commercially produces almonds, supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds. March 4, 2015


As California enters its fourth year of drought, farmers are in a fight to keep growing much of the nation’s food. California agriculture is a $46 billion industry, and the Central Valley alone produces nearly half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts and is the nation’s largest dairy producer — meaning that the drought is far from just a local issue.

Among other efforts to “keep California farmers farming,” last year Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation farmer, and peers implemented conservation measures and fallowed land early in the season to make 13,500 acre-feet (one acre-foot equals roughly 326,000 gallons) of water available to neighboring farmers at an affordable price. While other sales at the time priced water between $1,000 and $2,000 per acre-foot, the transfer Michael was a part of priced water at $250 an acre-foot.

California’s current drought is shining an international light on the state’s complicated water system and poor accounting of water usage. To read more about the issues plaguing the state and about Michael’s efforts to find ways to overcome the drought, read “How one California farmer is battling the worst drought in 1,200 years,” by Sena Christian.  View Ensia homepage

Sonya Doctorian is a photographer and video journalist. Her challenge and passion is to show people’s lives as they unfold through real-time observation. To see more of her work, visit sonya-doctorian.format.com.

Add Your Comments
  • new water treatment technology Apr. 14th, 2015
    Sonya, Thank you for your timely and valuable article. I've contacted Cannon regarding a proven water treatment system we've developed, and all crop field trials we've conserved (cut back) 30-60% of total water usage. Thanks to you we can reach out to Cannon and other farmers in the Central Valley, and they may not have to cut back the 10% on their current water supply, then being able to keep and water their crops. Our web site is www.tgh2o.com Thank you, James Smallwood, Field Operations for TGH2o
Post a Comment

You care about environmental issues. So do we!

Sign up now for our bi-weekly newsletter and you'll get the latest stories from Ensia delivered straight to your inbox.

You're in! Watch your email soon for stories that build awareness and understanding of urgent environmental problems — and promising solutions to those problems.

Share This