California’s water wars have shaped the course of the state’s economy and demography for more than a century. For farmers on the west side of the Central Valley, long dependent on federal and state water projects, climate change is introducing another factor into the water equation: salt.
Reporter Mark Schapiro: Near Westley, California, the almond orchards stretch as far as the eye can see. But scattered among the acres of healthy green trees are some that look yellow and burned.
The culprit? Salt, says almond farmer Barat Bisabri.
Barat Bisabri: The salt is getting into the tree, and it is showing its impact. The first impact starts showing on the growing tips, and you could see, almost like you had put a torch through the bottom portion of these trees. It is basically killing it from there and then coming back.
Reporter: Sixty-three acres of Bisabri’s almond trees have been poisoned by exposure to salt. Salt prevents the trees’ roots from absorbing nutrients from the soil and kills the leaves.
Typically, Bisabri’s trees would produce 2,400 pounds of almonds per acre, but in the salt-affected orchard, yields are down by a third, eliminating his profit margin. And the almonds they doproduce are small and stunted.
Bisabri: Basically, this is how a normal nut looks like, and this is one that is impacted.
Reporter: The west side of the San Joaquin Valley is astoundingly productive farmland. The valley as a whole produces half the world’s almonds. But now, salt poses an increasingly serious threat to crops, as water supplies dwindle.
At a salt conference in Fresno, I caught up with Daniel Cozad, head of the Central Valley Salinity Coalition.
Daniel Cozad: The west side has the detriment of being a former marine deposit – it was at one time under the ocean. And so it brings with it, in its soils, salt already. There’s no outlet for those salts; there’s no drain for the salt to go back to the ocean. And as the salts build up in the soil, they can eventually get into the groundwater.
Reporter: Traditionally, farmers dealt with salt by irrigating with large amounts of water to leach the salt in the soil away from the roots. But competition for water has forced many farmers to go to more efficient ways to irrigate.
Cozad: No one would ever speak against water conservation. It’s absolutely what we need to do. As farmers go to more efficient irrigation practices, from a salinity management perspective, it increases the problem.
Reporter: And some experts say it’s getting worse with climate change.
Francis Chung (chief of modeling support branch, California Department of Water Resources): With the climate change, sea level is on the rise.
Reporter: Francis Chung studies the vulnerability of the state’s water system to the changing climate.
Chung: We're not talking about in the future, sea level is going to rise – we’re talking about almost historical fact that it has risen already.
Reporter: He says that rising sea levels will mean less water available for everyone – notably farmers in the Central Valley.
Here’s why: The water used to irrigate the west side of the San Joaquin Valley comes from the north, where most of the state’s rainfall takes place. It comes down the Sacramento River, passes through the delta and is pumped by the federal water project to supply farms in the Central Valley and cities in the south.
But before the water leaves the delta, it’s used for something else. The delta is a seawater estuary where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers converge. To keep the delta from becoming too salty, some of the precious freshwater is used to push the seawater back toward San Francisco Bay.
And as sea levels rise due to climate change, more freshwater is needed to protect the delta. Chung says that for each foot of sea level rise, the state will need to release another 200,000 acre-feet of freshwater.
Chung: That extra freshwater, if not used to repel the sea salt intrusion, would've been used for municipal, industrial, agricultural purposes. But repulsing the salt is sort of like No. 1 priority to protect all the water uses that I just mentioned.
Reporter: A recent report from the National Research Council predicts that sea levels will rise in the San Francisco Bay by as much as 18 inches in the next 40 years.
Chung: To protect the water quality, we are sacrificing water quantity.
Reporter: Berj Moosekian is a melon farmer near Los Banos.
Berj Moosekian: And we do this all day long – we taste.
Reporter (to Moosekian): Yeah?
Moosekian: And like that … (bites into melon).
Reporter (to Moosekian): Good?
Moosekian: It’s terrible.
Reporter (to Moosekian): Yeah, terrible – the worst cantaloupes in the valley.
Reporter: Moosekian’s total reliance on irrigated delta water creates high uncertainty year after year.
Moosekian: The concern is the water is becoming so expensive, it’s so restrictive, it’s not even physically available – that we won’t be able to continue.
Reporter: To cope, Moosekian fallows land, usually about a third of his acreage. Across the west side, more than 100,000 acres were fallowed in 2012 due to lack of water.
Farmers are being forced to adapt.
John Duarte: Last year, we did a whole series of trials on pistachio rootstocks to isolate five or five clonal lines that are just extraordinary at high salt concentrations in vitro.
Reporter: This high-tech laboratory is run by the largest plant nursery in California. Owner John Duarte says that he’s been hearing reports from farmers about their problems with salt in the fields. He’s trying to devise a response. Lab workers are using a high-speed breeding method to test for salt tolerance.
Duarte: Here in the Central Valley, there’s huge opportunities for agriculture. It’s pushing growers through land scarcities, pushing growers into more marginal areas of land and more marginal water sources in those areas.
When they order rootstocks and trees and vines from us, they’re going to want rootstocks that are tolerant to salts, that are fairly drought-tolerant. They’ll want roots that forge deep into the ground and sustain the tree through drier times and hotter weather. And so we see salt tolerance and drought tolerance as really core factors for developing the genetics for the next couple of generations of farming.
Reporter: At nurseries and universities across the region – what Duarte calls the “Silicon Valley of agricultural innovation” – urgent efforts like this are under way.
Duarte: When those growers don’t get supplied with the freshwater resources they need out of the delta, they then have to go to groundwater wells. That water is generally very expensive – it’s very deep, it takes a lot of electricity to lift it and it’s also of very low quality.
We can help the grower deal with that to some extent, but if you don’t have enough quality water to farm, then there’s limits to what we can do with genetics.
Reporter: Back at the Shiraz Ranch, Barat Bisabri tried to do just that. He spent $30,000 to upgrade an irrigation well. Then in 2009, after three years of drought, his real problems began. Water was in drastically short supply.
Bisabri: We got only 10 percent of the allocation, and what we did was we started the well that we had and we irrigated this orchard with that well.
Reporter: The well brought up tainted water, much too salty to use. But he had no options and used it anyway.It didn’t work.
Bisabri: Every trick that I know, I’ve done to these trees and they won’t respond anymore. So now the last resort is to take it out. So we’re going to come with the bulldozers, get the trees out of here, grind them up and send them to the incinerator and start over.
Reporter: One of the first things he plans to do is buy a new variety of more salt-tolerant almond tree, and he hopes that more rain will wash the salt from his soil. But if that doesn’t happen, he’s in trouble.
Bisabri: So I’m hoping that, as I said, some of those assumptions will not come true – whether it is on the climate change itself or on the impact of climate change and its impact on the west side.
Reporter: Climate change and water security are reaching the highest levels of government.
Governor Jerry Brown has announced a costly plan to modernize the delta – in part, he says, to address the threat of climate change to the water supply. Two massive tunnels would bypass the delta to channel freshwater directly to farms and cities in Southern California.
Gov. Jerry Brown: We have farmers, we have fish, we have environmentalists, we have citizens. And we’ve got to make it all work somehow.
Reporter: He says the plan would help farmers get the water they say they need and to avoid the salty groundwater. The chances of it being built in the next decade or so are slim.
Bisabri: What am I going to do if I don’t do this? If I get out of farming, then I go to do what?
Reporter: Mark Schapiro
Producer, camera: Serene Fang
Associate producer, sound: Sharon Pieczenik
Editors: Serene Fang, David Ritsher
Senior digital editor and graphics: David Ritsher
Senior producer: Stephen Talbot
Executive producer for CIR: Sharon Tiller
Archival photos and video: AP Images, KQED “Quest,” NewsHour
Music: DeWolfe Music Library
Special thanks to: The 11th Hour Project
Partner organization: KQED