Making waves

Written by Kevin Catalano

Moving his index finger across a topographic map on a computer screen, Ray Gene Veldhuis precisely traces the movement of surface water across the undulating terrain adjacent to RV Dairy.

In the grasp of a drought that has resulted in an economic loss of $2.2 billion, farmers in California — especially in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley — desperately covet water in order to protect their economic livelihood. For Veldhuis, however, the precious resource not only sustains his herd and nut trees, it taps a deep well of memories and emotions.

Standing on the bank of the Merced River on his farm, he fondly recalls days of swimming, fishing and running up and down the river.

“Growing up next to this river, I’ve developed a lifetime connection,” Veldhuis says. “When I was young, it was a source of recreation. Now, as a dairyman, I’m passionate about it and want to learn all I can about water law and water management.”

Veldhuis has educated himself over the years on the science and politics of water. He has participated in the stakeholder process through leadership and participant roles for the Merced Irrigation District. He also serves as vice chairman of the Central Valley Dairy Representative Monitoring Program, a coalition of more than 1,100 dairy farmers conducting monitoring and research to protect water quality and make recommendations about improved dairy practices. 

Among the top-producing agriculture regions in the world, the 450-mile-long Central Valley prospers because of its historically favorable weather: hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters — a pattern that necessitates irrigation in order to grow crops.

“Most farmers in the Central Valley count on surface water from rivers or canals that are fed by snowpack, groundwater from wells or a combination of both,” says Emily Rooney, president of the Agriculture Council of California, which represents 15,000 farmers across the state. “As a result of the three-plus years of drought, the bulk of the San Joaquin Valley has been using more groundwater.”

“The water supply is contingent on where the farm is located geographically,” she says.

An advocacy group in legislative and regulatory matters, the council comprises a number of agriculture companies and organizations, including Dairy Farmers of America.

It works on behalf of farmers in the drafting and passage of state laws and the implementation of regulations.

The answer to the state’s dire lack of water resources cannot be just sinking more wells, according to J.P. Cativiela, program coordinator at Dairy Cares, which focuses on environmental sustainability and animal care issues.

“We are all basically just drinking out of the same glass,” he says. “When you put more straws in the glass, the water just runs out faster. It doesn’t solve the problem to just drill more wells.”

DFA also is a founding member of Dairy Cares. Although business for well-drilling companies is booming, farmers and the land itself are suffering. Previously, a well 500 feet deep would strike subterranean water; now, crews must go 1,000 feet, which may cost a farmer $300,000–$350,000.

In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey has found that overdrafting from groundwater pumped out of parched land is causing large chunks of soil to sink or cave in. The resulting subsidence could be dangerous for roads, water canals, pipelines and low-lying communities.