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.

On DFA member Case Vlot’s dairy in Chowchilla, Calif., which he owns with his brother, Dirk, shifting soil has collapsed eight of the 30 wells that nourish the animals and crops on the farm. He’s also paying three times more for annual maintenance as land subsidence crushes well pipes.

“We started to notice this problem in 2012,” Vlot says, “as the ground was settling around the well casings.” 

Wells will be re-drilled, but Vlot says the waiting list for this type of project is more than one year.

Addressing the ongoing drought, the California State Legislature in 2014 passed what some consider the state’s most meaningful water regulation in the past 100 years. The law is called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and is an effort to begin replenishing underground water.

Over the next two years, SGMA gives farmers and other property owners a substantial stake in writing the governing rules for their particular area, which is why Veldhuis is making frequent calls and visits to officials of Merced County and the Merced Irrigation District.

“I’m having conversations with the CEO of Merced County and others about some of the challenges the government officials are facing as they try to put the groundwater rules into place,” he says. “The supervisors who have the power to make decisions don’t understand the issue. I’m not going in with an agenda, but I can help them understand the issues dairymen and other farmers are facing.”

With the law’s emphasis on local input to help determine outcomes in the groundwater management planning process, DFA is encouraging participation by members, says Francis Pacheco, vice president of membership and public affairs for DFA’s Western Area.

For DFA member Bob Kelly, who has been involved in the local SGMA effort, the new law “is not immediately going to change things, but it will eventually address overdrafting issues in parts of the state that are sensitive to this.”SGMA places a five-year deadline on completion of sustainability plans in the state’s many water basin boundaries. The plans must identify basins that are subject to critical overdrafting, along with sources of water that will replenish, or recharge, the basin.

In a manual recharging process, farmers or other land owners designate ground where excess rainwater would collect and ultimately percolate into the subsurface.

Recharging efforts that sustain the water supply are already under way at Kelly’s 100-year-old farm in Stevinson, Calif.

“Our operation is unusual because we have a canal that’s unlined and extra ground that allows us during really wet years to do some recharging on the property,” he says. “In order to do this, we take ground out of production.”

Vlot says he supports recharging efforts. 

“My neighbors and I are willing to set aside good farm ground to be used as recharging ponds when we get a lot of rain,” he says. “According to studies I’ve seen, these recharge ponds work to replenish groundwater.”

The drought carries economic consequences now and in the future.

Dairy economists point out that higher feed costs and lower prices for milk will make this year a challenging one for dairies in California. A drop in milk production in the state, which produces more than 20 percent of the country’s milk, could affect prices for produces in others parts of the country.

Kelly pointed out that a drought several years ago in Australia resulted in a substantial decline in milk output.

“If we don’t get a real wet next three months, significantly less forage will be available for our herd,” Kelly says. “It then becomes an economics question. Do we continue to milk this many animals, especially if the price of milk goes below our breakeven point? Of course, every dairy is different.”

For his part, Veldhuis supports the local input provided in the new law, allowing farmers in Merced County to manage the aquifer under their property.

“This is better than letting a judge or legislator manage an aquifer,” he says.

Although his involvement with water issues is partially for the benefit of his operation, Veldhuis says the issue goes beyond his dairy.

“Over the years, I’ve continually sought ways to operate this farm in a way that is sustainable for the land and the river,” he says.