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Community adapts to drought conditions


February 21, 2014
Local farmers are working diligently to combat existing drought conditions in the area. One of these farmers is Al Stehly, a Farm Bureau Board of Director and a grape, citrus, and, avocado grower who has been in the agricultural industry all his life.

"We're irrigating right now which we normally don't do. Usually we have rain coming in," Stehly said. "It usually rains a lot in March."

Farmers are hopeful the annual pattern will be repeated this season.

Using irrigation makes it even more expensive to operate as a grower. For instance, avocados have to be super productive to cover the cost of water.

"Because of the price of water escalating, water has gotten so expensive. Every year the price of water is raised," said Stehly.

Wells are not a reliable source of water either. Water levels in wells are dry due to having no rain to replenish ground water.

In the San Joaquin area because of severe water shortage, drastic cutbacks have already been implemented. According to Stehly, there is so much well water being used there that the ground is actually starting to sink.

"The canal comes from Northern California to us. Water can't run through a dip so a new canal will have to be built," Stehly said, forewarning what the future may hold.

In contrast, the Hemet reservoir is full so no water cutbacks have been initiated for 2014.

"We have to wait and see what kind of cutbacks we're going to get," said Stehly.

For now, there have been no mandatory cutbacks enforced for 2014 but this might not necessarily be the case for the year 2015.

"The last time we had cutbacks, the city of San Diego asked people for a 20 percent cutback," Stehly said.

The community responded favorably to water conservation measures by turning off lawn and garden sprinklers and by installing low-flow showers and toilets.

"When listing cutbacks and putting conservation in place, it's going to be harder this time to squeeze that sponge," said Stehly.

But once again, the community has responded to the responsibility of water conservation. At Cuyamaca College, classes offered in residential gardening and landscaping are overfull and there is a waiting list.

In addition to citrus, avocado, and grape crops predominantly grown in the area, water shortages also affect other high water consumption crops such as rice, almonds, lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes. The livestock industry is also affected. If it's too dry, there isn't enough feed for cattle. But produce shortages aren't necessarily noticed by consumers in the immediate area because local produce sold in neighborhood markets is primarily imported from other states such as Florida and Texas and other countries such as Mexico and Brazil. In turn, a large percentage of local produce is exported to the Pacific Rim.

Over the last ten years, Stehly has seen citrus groves dry up and die. If drought conditions persist, local growers will be forced to resort to taking more drastic measures.

"We're going to have to remove more trees and cut some out. Trees can't survive without water," said Stehly.

On the other hand, pomegranates and grapes utilize less water but it takes three to five years to establish vineyards.

Stehly recommends replacing water-thirsty vegetation with succulents and native plants that don't use much water. He has instilled measures of water conservation in his own backyard by watering his garden less frequently. Instead of watering the lawn once a week, he now waters the lawn once each month, thereby allowing grass to reach a dormant state. Stehly has even considered looking at artificial turf to replace his lawn.

"I don't know if it will work," said Stehly. "If landscaping is set up correctly, you don't need much water."

Gardens generally require minimal water usage. Watering lawns and washing cars expend more water.

"People don't realize it but when there is a severe water shortage, agriculture is the first industry to go," said Stehly.

According to Dr. Linden A. Burzell with the Yuima Municipal Water District in Pauma Valley, the drought has affected supply and storage.

"How serious the drought is will depend on what happens the next few weeks," said Burzell. We are part of the way through the rainy season, March and April being months of significant rain. The Yuima Municipal Water District has set a good example by incorporating rock landscaping, planting palm trees, succulents, cycad, and other native plants that don't require watering.

In Carlsbad, the Encino Power Plant Desalination Program has fostered conservation utilizing reverse osmosis in which salty brine is converted into pure fresh water.

Locally, drought tolerant gardening and landscaping methods are being introduced such as the Bushman Rainfall Harvesting Tank that collects water falling on house rooftops. Drip irrigation in farming and MP rotating sprinklers in landscaping help conserve water. Weather-matic timers adjust according to the weather and time of year using clocks to automatically shut off if it rains cutting irrigation time in half.

Rob Marshburn, manager of Grangetto's Farm and Garden Supply in Valley Center describes stumping as a severe means to combat drought. Avocado trees are cut back and for two years they don't need irrigation but for four years there is no supply.

"There are a lot of farmers who are hurting," said Marshburn. "Once trees are completely cut down, it can never be farmed again. Once farms are gone, food is needed and food will have to be imported."

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