Agricultural Water Stewardship for Drought Preparedness

Posted on Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 by Adam Kotin

By Kendall Lambert, Water Program Coordinator at Community Alliance with Family Farmers

In the third and final blog of our series on the California drought, guest blogger Kendall Lambert discusses the benefits of water stewardship practices. View parts one and two of this series.

Photo Credit: CAWSI
Photo Credit: CAWSI

As we are all very much aware, California is now faced with an historic drought. Among other things, this means that farmers and ranchers will have limited access to surface water for irrigation, and many growers will not be able to sufficiently and sustainably substitute groundwater. To better prepare for water shortages like this one, growers can adopt on-farm ‘water stewardship’ practices to optimize agricultural production, achieve economic savings, and boost ecological and human health benefits.

A water stewardship approach carries forward the mindset of water conservation to a more integrated view of water’s place in the farm’s ecosystem. Stewardship measures are widely accepted as effective and relatively inexpensive tools to optimize water on the farm. Through sound water management, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) estimates that California agriculture can decrease its use by up to 1 million acre-feet per year.

Many of these tools and techniques are not new. But according to the Pacific Institute, adoption of on-farm water stewardship practices has been slow. There are many reasons why: American Farmland Trust surveyed growers and found that risk, cost, and a lack of information are significant barriers to adopting new practices. The cost of water has been relatively low in California, which is a disincentive to conserve, and programs that provide much-needed education, outreach, and technical assistance are underfunded and understaffed. For example, with only 200 farm advisors, UC Cooperative Extension staff levels were down 40% in 2010 compared to what they were in the 1990s.

On the bright side, this means there are still opportunities for farmers to achieve enhanced drought resiliency through the use of new water stewardship practices.

So what can farmers do? Below are a few on-farm practices featured in the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative (CAWSI) online resource center:

Irrigation Management:

Certain practices optimize water use when irrigating. Best management practices include, but are not limited to:

  • More efficient systems. Micro/drip irrigation can reduce water use by 30-50%.
  • Irrigation scheduling. Based on crop water needs, growers can use some combination of soil moisture monitoring, weather station information, and crop data as appropriate.
  • System maintenance. Regular inspections and upkeep improve the efficiency and uniformity of irrigation equipment.
  • Growers can also work with local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) staff to create irrigation plans and consult the NRCS Guide to Effective Irrigation Practices.

Recycled Water:

  • Growers can use treated municipal wastewater, reuse agricultural runoff or tailwater from irrigation events, or even use household grey water or roof runoff for small scale crop irrigation. Marin County Farm Advisors estimate that with 40,000 square feet of roofing, growers in Chileno/Hicks Valley could collect over an acre-foot of roof runoff for reuse.

Soil Management:

  • Through proper soil management, growers can increase the water holding capacity of the soil, decrease erosion, and increase water infiltration rates. Stewardship practices include reduced tillage/conservation tillage, using soil amendments such as mulch or compost, and planting winter cover crops (though these do require winter rains to grow). Through these techniques, growers can build soil organic matter (SOM); studies have shown that for every 1% increase in SOM, soils can hold an additional 16,000 gallons of water in the top foot of soil.
    Photo Credit: CAWSI
    Photo Credit: CAWSI

On-Farm Ponds:

  • When winter rains do occur, on-farm ponds capture and store rainwater for use later in the season. Ponds can also be used to store runoff or tailwater from irrigation events to be reused on farm. Penn State Extension estimates that one 2-acre clay-lined pond with an average depth of 7 feet can provide roughly 10 acre-feet of irrigation water when filled.


This is by no means an exhaustive list of on-farm practices. Depending on the severity of water scarcity, growers may even consider switching to more drought-tolerant crops or even fallowing fields. The feasibility and usefulness of each practice will also vary by farm.

Growers should consult with local UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Advisors, NRCS staff, Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs), or their relevant commodity group, such as the Almond Board or California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, for crop-specific water management advice during and after the drought.

Policy Recommendations

As CAFF, CalCAN, and others have made clear, more resources for technical and financial assistance are needed to support California farmers when facing the effects of climate change, including drought.

California lawmakers have an opportunity to direct funding to on-farm water stewardship practices with the upcoming 2014 Water Bond. In the past, Water Bond funding has overwhelmingly been allocated to large infrastructure projects, such as dams and pipelines. For example, CAFF estimates that nearly 70% of Proposition 50 (2002) Agricultural Water Use Efficiency grant money awarded by the Department of Water Resources since 2005 has been for implementation/infrastructure projects.

Large infrastructure projects take years to complete and, given the changing climate, the water quantity outcomes are uncertain. Meanwhile, on-farm water stewardship practices can result in immediate individual water savings, as well as increased resiliency and self-sufficiency for the future. The more farmers that use these tools, the greater the collective water savings will be. And we will be supporting California farmers in the face of drought and uncertainty.

The 2014 Water Bond needs specific language that directs funding to support on-farm water stewardship in the following areas:

  • Outreach, Education, and Technical Assistance: Provide funding to support groups such as the RCDs, UCCE, NRCS, and similar organizations who supply farmers with the knowledge to adopt new practices.
  • Research and Development: Provide funding for universities and researchers to further develop best management practices for on-farm water use efficiency.
  • Financial Assistance: Provide direct financial assistance to growers in the form of loans or cost shares to assist with the financial risk of adopting new practices.

There are also opportunities for a portion of cap-and-trade funds to go towards water stewardship activities that achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions, with associated energy savings in having to move less water.

There is still time for spring rains to come, but in the event that the drought continues and disaster relief is needed, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has put together a Drought Resources webpage with news and information. Please check there for Federal and State Assistance programs, including crop insurance, disaster assistance programs, and emergency loan services.

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