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Troubling View From the Oasis: California's Abundance May Be a Mirage 

Wednesday, Mar 5 2014

The rains came, finally, on the 26th of February. Rain fell on the grapevines of Napa and the grassland of Marin, on the almond trees and tomato fields of the Central Valley, on the strawberries and lettuce rows of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Runoff gushed down dry gullies, sluiced through drainage culverts, filled up thirsty lakes and reservoirs. Farmers watched with relief as their dusty soil turned to mud and hoped that the long drought was finally coming to an end.

The rainstorm was greeted differently in San Francisco. Of course everyone was glad to see water come to the parched state, but citizens had more concrete annoyances to contend with: delays at SFO and on Muni, small lakes at every street corner, wet socks. But that's about it. San Francisco's multiple and robust water sources — not only Hetch Hetchy but also three other reservoirs, plus access to groundwater, and money in public coffers that keeps systems working properly — have ensured that the water shortage has barely affected the daily life of its residents. Conditions that have devastated rural communities have registered in S.F. as a period of extended pleasantness, a string of warm, sunny days perfect for lounging in the green irrigated grass of Dolores Park. Weather is mostly a matter of convenience in the city; droughts are an abstraction.

This disconnect between the complex, unpredictable natural world and the safe, controlled parklet version of it is a symptom of modern urban life whether you live in San Francisco or Singapore. An extreme event like a drought just makes the separation between city and country priorities all the more obvious.

San Francisco may exist in a bubble, but the drought's consequences will finally penetrate it in the coming months. No one knows for sure how much food prices will rise this spring and summer as farmers try to recoup their losses — a lot of it depends on how much rain we get in the next two months — but everyone from food producers to grocery store buyers to the USDA agrees that they will. Everything will cost cents or dollars more: fruits and vegetables, meat and cheese, wine and beer, all the items grown or produced in California. Restaurants that use local, sustainably raised food will have to raise menu prices to keep up with ingredient costs. And because California produces about a third of the country's fruits and vegetables, the higher prices will ripple out through the rest of America.

No one knows how much worse things will get, either. Last week's rains, while helpful, were not enough — the state needs at least four more big soakers to replenish its low water supplies. Even if the rain comes back, its absence has illuminated the fragility of California's agricultural ecosystem. There's new evidence that suggests that drought is a more persistent condition in the region than previously thought, and dry spells could come more often and last longer in the future. Water resource management is an issue that most city dwellers have had the luxury of ignoring. But the further back in time you look, the more you understand how things must change in the future.

It's Been a Rough Three Years

Drought doesn't seem like it could penetrate the self-contained ecotopia of Straus Family Creamery in Marin, provider of organic milk, cream, butter, yogurt, and other dairy products to the Bay Area and beyond. Unlike the city, the farm is hyper-aware of the cycles of the natural world, and uses its tech and infrastructure to make the most of what is provided for free. The family-owned businesses' "methane digester" converts cow manure into electricity that powers the dairy and electric cars. It runs on wastewater from milk production, which is then used flush barns, wash equipment, and fertilize fields. And the farm is actively trying to do more with less, including converting wastewater back to potable. "We're trying to close the loop on everything we're doing," says Albert Straus, owner and second-generation dairyman. "[We're] looking at how we can reuse our resources to have as little of impact on the environment."

Even the best conservationist can't play God. Straus says that his bottom line has been directly affected by the lack of early rain, the dairy's main source of irrigation. Without rain, there's no pasture; without pasture, the cows have nothing to eat, and the dairy's eight suppliers have to feed the herd on trucked-in alfalfa — an already pricey proposition that becomes more so in a market like this, when so many dairymen and ranchers find themselves faced with the same bare fields.

This then is where the drought starts to penetrate into the oasis of San Francisco: The added financial burden for the dairy farms will be reflected in increased prices for Straus products in the coming months.

The Straus story is one that's playing out all around the state as farmers try to cope with the worst drought in California's settled history. Almond and walnut growers are removing trees from their property that they can't afford to irrigate; pig and cattle raisers are culling their herds because they can't afford to feed their animals. David Evans of Marin Sun Farms had to sell off 100 cattle in January because he was worried about the herds damaging bare fields where there would normally be pasture this time of year.

"From a grazing standpoint or livestock production standpoint, there's no way to recoup what has happened already," Evans says. His company also manages the production of other ranches' grass-fed cattle — or cattle that would be grass-fed in any other year, but whose diets now must be supplemented with barley.

Other farmers had to start paying for irrigation water in January, when nature usually gives them a free pass until April. At Eatwell Farms in Dixon, Nigel Walker had to spend $4,000 to irrigate for 10 days straight in January. Eatwell Farms grows fruits and vegetables that it sells at farmers' markets and online at Good Eggs, and Walker says he's luckier than many — his irrigation district, Lake Berryessa, had a big reservoir at 70 percent capacity before the rain. "When people talk to me about drought, at least I have the water, it just causes me a lot of extra expense. ... Hopefully my customers will understand when I have to raise prices this summer. I just can't absorb those extra costs. There's not enough wiggle room when you're farming to do that."

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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