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CA Farmers Find Unlikely Ally In Weathering Drought: A Major Utility Company

PG&E sees a big opportunity to help farmers reduce their water use – and electricity use – at the same time. By doing so, it can save precious water, help farmers save money and help the power company itself reduce overall electricity demand.
by Peyton FlemingNational Geographic Posted on Aug 12, 2014

 

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Joe Segura works for the electric and gas utility PG&E, but he sounds more like a farmer when you spend time with him.

Driving around the drought-parched San Joaquin Valley here in California’s Central Valley, Segura winces as he describes groundwater wells “being sucked dry” and drives by full-grown citrus trees dying because farmers don’t have enough water to sustain them.

“With row crops like lettuce, you can simply not plant. If you have trees, you can’t just not give them water for a year,” said Segura, a PG&E account manager, as we pass by a hilly grove of water-starved grapefruit trees with dry dull-green leaves and withered fruit.

Segura is on the front lines of helping the state’s massive agriculture industry attempt to weather a devastating drought that is expected to cost the state $2.2 billion, including $810 million in reduced crop revenues, as well as some 17,000 seasonal and part-time jobs. He’s a living testament to the close interdependency between water use, food production and energy costs.

In California, the water, food and energy nexus is especially profound. PG&E alone has 35,000 agriculture customers in its service area, which covers most of Central and Northern California. As much as 19 percent of the state’s total electrical consumption is for pumping, treating, collecting and discharging water – the vast majority of it used for growing crops, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report.

PG&E sees a big opportunity to help farmers reduce their water use – and electricity use – at the same time. By doing so, it can save precious water, help farmers save money and help the power company itself reduce overall electricity demand which means avoiding having to build costly new power plants.

Segura has a few tools at his disposal, the biggest being financial incentives to help farmers switch to water-saving technologies such as drip irrigation and low-pressure sprinklers, as well as energy-saving pumping systems. (See video)

Among the many farmers taking advantage of these programs is Barat Bisabri, an Iranian-born farmer who grows almonds, olives and various citrus crops on 1,200 acres in the Central Valley.

Bisabri thinks and dreams about water. Two of the state’s biggest water aqueducts – the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct – are adjacent to his fields in Newman. His water allotment this year from those aqueducts is zero.

Bisabri has cobbled together a patchwork quilt of supplies for some – but not all – of his fields. It includes a bit of groundwater from two new wells, allotments from annual crop growers who are fallowing their fields, and additional supplies from neighboring farmers who are able to withdraw water from the Delta-Mendota Canal due to their more senior water rights.

And none of this water comes cheap. “It’s 10 to 20 times more expensive this year compared to normal years,” said Bisabri, who will pay about $1 million for water this year.

Just as painful, he’s being forced to let some of his permanent citrus crops go without any water at all, including 65 acres of grapefruit trees and naval oranges that are being left to die.

Bisabri’s partnership with PG&E is, at least, helping.

A stone’s throw from his porch is a field of one-year-old orange trees. Alongside each tree is a tiny sprinkler that distributes a light, steady stream of water on the roots with clarion accuracy – far more efficiently than overhead sprinklers.By using the water-saving sprinklers this year (PG&E pays for the sprinklers, but not the irrigation system), Bisabri will put only a quarter acre-foot of water on these bushes, compared to 1.5 acre-feet in a normal year. (An acre-foot is the water needed to cover an acre with a foot of water.) The micro sprinklers are curbing his overall water use in young and old orchards by about 25 percent combined.

“What I’m saving due to these PG&E-sponsored technologies is at least $200,000 in water costs,” he said.

Another advantage is less water means less pumping. “Because we’re pushing less water, our pump size can be reduced by at least in half,” he said, noting that smaller pumps cut his energy bills by more than half.

Bisabri is also a big fan of PG&E’s time-of-use rates, expanded last year for small- and medium-size growers, that make it far less costly to irrigate during off-peak hours instead of hot daytime hours when watering is far less efficient. Overall, Bisabri says the savings on his electric bills from using the micro sprinklers and the off-peak watering rates is more than $30,000 a month.

PG&E has expanded its agriculture offerings since the onset of the drought and is spending more than $10 million a year on rebates and incentives for water- and energy-saving irrigation and pumping equipment. Last year, PG&E’s programs saved about 1.9 billion gallons of water; two-thirds of those savings were the direct result of farmers switching from high-pressure irrigation systems to more efficient methods.

Still, there’s much more that could be done. Less than 25 percent of the utility’s agriculture customers are taking advantage of its programs and the amount of water being saved is only a pittance of the estimated 13 million acre-feet of groundwater California farmers are expected to pump this year, according to a new University of California-Davis report.

PG&E’s Patrick Mullen, director of agriculture services, agreed that these efforts need to be scaled. “PG&E and the Public Utilities Commission are working closely to develop and fund new and innovative energy- and water-saving programs,” he said. “Of course, we’d like do more.”

This column is part of a series exploring how California companies are pursuing innovative approaches to protect depleted groundwater supplies amid the state’s devastating drought and groundwater reform legislation being debated in Sacramento.

About the Author

Peyton Fleming is senior communications director at Ceres, a nonprofit organization mobilizing business and investor leadership on global sustainability challenges. Connect with him on Twitter @PeytonCeres or by email fleming@ceres.org. Learn more about Ceres at www.ceres.org/valuingeverydrop.

Read the post at National Geographic

Meet the Expert

Peyton Fleming

Peyton Fleming oversees external communications, media relations, outreach materials and the web site at Ceres. He joined Ceres in fall 2004, after working for six years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office in Boston.

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