Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and ex-presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina said recently that environmentalists were the cause of water problems in California because they had blocked the creation of more dams in the state.
She was quickly raked over the coals by environmentalists, who pointed out that it doesn’t matter how much storage you have if you have no water to store. Turns out both sides are missing the point. And the opportunity.
The Great California Drought, now in year five (though Northern Cal is getting some temporary relief), is the worst drought in California history. According to NASA we are currently trillions (yes, trillions) of gallons below where we should be in groundwater.
This has forced us to deplete our precious aquifers — many that took millennia to fill. Recently, NASA, using satellites to measure underground water supplies, found that nearly one in seven U.S. aquifers are so depleted that they must now be classified as “extremely” or “highly” stressed, and that California’s Central Valley Aquifer — which is being sucked dry to help drought-stricken farms in our core growing region — is now by far the most troubled in the United States.
Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the study, called the situation “critical,” adding that “we are running out of groundwater.”
According to the federal government, nine cities in California are at risk of going bone dry, and some small towns are already needing to truck in water for daily use.
So where’s the good news? Truth is, we’re standing on it. More precisely, we’re farming on it.
New data on soil from around the world shows that if we modify our approaches to how we grow our food, we could reduce the amount of water necessary by as much as 80 percent, depending on the crop. And we can do this while maintaining similar yields and making our agriculture industry more resilient.
The science is actually fairly simple. Healthy soil is brimming with living organisms — billions in a single spoonful. To support these microorganisms, soil needs to store water for them, which it does by creating humus, an organic component of soil that stores 40 times its weight in water. So think of healthy soil as a huge sponge A really huge sponge that acts like a water battery during droughts. Studies by the Rodale Institute have shown that years into a drought healthy soil is still producing food — even without irrigated water.
So the big question is — are we doing this — and if not, why not?
The quick answer is no. Most of the state uses industrial agriculture techniques, which include mono-crops, severe tilling, and widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
These techniques kill those microorganisms in the soil, taking the health of the soil with them. Studies of industrial farms have shown a reduction in the organic matter by as much as 90 percent. And when that disappears, so does the soil’s natural ability to store water.
The good news is that we can reverse this quickly. According to Dr. Christine Jones, one of the world’s foremost scientists on groundcover and soil, and also verified by Dr. Rattan Lal at Ohio State University, every 1 percent of organic matter we restore in the soil results in the retention of 20,000 to 60,000 gallons of water per acre.
With 27,000,000 acres of planted cropland and 63,000,000 acres of range grasslands in the state, that adds up to a stored potential of 1.8 trillion to 5.4 trillion gallons.
Accomplishing this may be easier than you think. Depending on the soil and what’s being raised, it comes down to adding compost and managing the soil in a regenerative manner.
For crops, that means cover crops, no (or very shallow) tilling and reduced use of synthetic chemicals. For grazing livestock, it means using movable paddocks with dense herds so cattle can be managed in a way that replicates how herd animals move in nature, which benefits the soil instead of depleting it.
We can help make this happen by supporting bills like SB 367, which would fund agricultural projects in California that store water (as well as carbon), and by supporting Gov. Jerry Brown’s Healthy Soils Initiative, which could protect our agriculture industry, our water, and even positively affect climate change from this moment on.
As to Fiorina’s comments about needing more dams to solve the water crisis, here’s a novel way to look at it: according to Russ Conserv, an engineer who ran Shell Oil’s Gamechangers Division, adding 1 percent of organic matter to California’s agricultural soil would store the equivalent of up to 16 Folsom dams.
So if you’re looking to increase California’s water supply and help our agriculture industry at the same time, look down. You might just be standing on a puddle. A big, statewide, permanent puddle.
Yvon Chouinard is founder of outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia. Larry Kopald is a co-founder of The Carbon Underground, a science and communications based nonprofit working to restore soil as a means to mitigate climate change and droughts and better feed the planet.