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At Farming Workshop: Drought and Salty Wells

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Mark Silberstein-500

By Wes Sims | KUSP News

During droughts cities tell residents to stop watering outside. Farms don’t have that option. This drought highlights the challenge growers face maintaining agriculture while preserving water supplies. It’s become part of the curriculum for a program that educates community leaders about local agricultural issues.

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Drying Landscape
Marine Biologist Mark Silberstein is giving a walking tour of the Elkhorn Slough, near Moss Landing.

“From this vantage point you really get the broad sweep of Elkhorn Slough. You sort of get the big picture,” Silberstein says as the tour reaches a point offering a view of much of the preserve.

Silberstein is executive director of the non-profit Elkhorn Slough Foundation, and one of a dozen instructors at Focus Agriculture, an annual nine-week lecture series designed to give members of the community, an on-site understanding of farming in the Pajaro Valley.

“This is called the Springfield Terrace, where before the Second World War, there was artesian water,” he says. “There was so much water pressure that fresh water bubbled out of the ground.”

Contaminated Wells, Fallowed Land
But not anymore, because of salt-water intrusion, and more recently, a critical lack of rainfall. Jess Brown, the executive director of Agri-Culture, the Watsonville-based non-profit that administers Focus Ag, says the drought raised the priority water use discussions.

Lou Calcagno at his dairy farm. Photo: Monterey County Weekly

Lou Calcagno at his dairy farm. Photo: Monterey County Weekly

“We’re very lucky to have Lou Calcagno, who has been a supervisor for many years but he’s a dairy farmer,” Brown says. “And what’s interesting is that he talks about how Elkhorn Slough, where his dairy is, was a fresh water body, and now it isn’t. It’s salt water.”

Calcagno offered this example: “Just recently, the Fish and Game bought a property next to me. They had a well, it was 800 feet, it went salty. The 850 acres that was farmed, it’s no longer farmed. It’s growing weeds.”

Reclaimed Water or Taking Land Out of Production
Farming in California coastal areas has suffered from salt water intrusion for a long time, an issue Lou Calcagno deals with as a dairy farmer and as a Monterey County Supervisor. Calcagno supports the increased use of recycled water as one way to replenish the groundwater supply.

“When you leave Moss Landing and you drive to Salinas or you cross the river to Monterey, all that ground is being irrigated with reclaimed water, which we call purple line, sewer water from the City of Monterey, former Fort Ord, Marina, Seaside, Salinas, Moss Landing, and Castroville. We take all that water and reclaim it.”

Though the Elkhorn Slough Foundation maintains about ten percent of its surrounding lands in some kind of farming or ranching, Mark Silberstein says another way existing groundwater supplies can be preserved, is by not farming areas that are unproductive.

“We’ve taken 600 plus acres of steep – what we felt were overly steep or eroding hillsides – out of production. That equates to approaching 2,000 acre feet of water a year that was being pumped out of the ground year after year that’s now banked in the ground.”

The Task at Hand
Two thousand acre feet would be about four percent of the amount that farms take out of Pajaro Valley wells each year. Focus Ag class member and Watsonville City Council woman Trina Coffman-Gomez says, clearly, there’s work to be done.

“All of us need to take our part and be responsible for conserving what we can, because it, it’s basically the monetary value of our area. It’s no longer money. It’s water. Water is that gold that’s in our valley here, and we need to make sure we do the best with the resources that we have here and work together with it.”

2013 was one of the driest years on record, with water use in the Pajaro Valley, the second highest in the last decade. And that was before drought conditions got as bad as they are now.

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