In the News

North Coast farmers cut planting due to drought

By J.M. Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 8/10/14

DAVENPORT — In 31 years of growing strawberries on the North Coast, Jim Cochran says the drought undoubtedly has made this season the most difficult.

The founder and general manager of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, Cochran voluntarily has reduced planting 75 percent on two fields near Wilder Ranch State Park and Laguna Road east of Highway 1, where his only irrigation source other than the sky is a raw water pipeline owned by the drought-stricken city of Santa Cruz.

Instead, he planted a few acres of broccoli and cauliflower, a safer bet because they take three months to grow whereas a guaranteed water source is required for a year to cultivate berries.

"It was both a business decision and an environmental decision," Cochran said before leading a tour of the mostly fallow land he leases 8 miles north of downtown Santa Cruz.

When rain isn't plentiful, most North Coast farmers typically tap groundwater sources before pulling from the Santa Cruz pipeline, which moves water from the city's oldest and most pristine sources. But this year, with both groundwater and surface sources running low after three consecutive dry years, several farmers told water officials they intend to cut back on planting.

"They said they didn't know what the future held," said Kyle Petersen, customer service manager for the Santa Cruz Water Department.

The amount of raw water sold for North Coast irrigation — currently there are 29 account holders — is small compared to the city's overall system and varies greatly year to year based largely on weather conditions. On average, from 2000 to 2010, coast irrigation accounted for 45 million gallons annually, or around 1.3 percent of the average total annual consumption from all customer groups during those years, according to city water reports.

From January to July of this year, North Coast irrigation amounted to 9.3 million gallons, which is about the same for that period last year. However, the figures are up sharply from the 5.7 million gallons used in the first half of 2010, a year when rainfall was strong.

Farmers tend to use city water the most during the later part of summer, officials said, so it's too early to tell what the impact might be on the system in coming months. Meanwhile, the city's residential customers are under mandated rationing for the first time in nearly 25 years, and restrictions could be tightened and extended to commercial customers if the drought worsens.


The North Coast streams — Laguna Creek, Majors Creek, Liddell Spring and Reggiardo Creek — historically represent a third of the water supply for Santa Cruz. Not only are stream flows directly related to rainfall, some are protected fish habitat.

The city has not taken substantially from Laguna Creek for more than a year due to a pact with fish regulators. While negotiations continue over long-term flow standards, it's clear the North Coast will become an increasingly unreliable source for the city, which means a greater dependence on the San Lorenzo River and higher treatment costs.

Steve Bontadelli, who once grew Brussels sprouts and artichokes on the Coast Dairies property, quit farming the North Coast in the late 1990s and moved to La Selva Beach after he said fish regulators restricted the use of Scott and San Vicente creeks.

"You are a fool to grow a perennial crop with no promise of water," Bontadelli said.

Cochran said he decided to reduce planting last year when the severity of the drought became more obvious and pressure in the city's pipeline was low. He also is tapped out on how much he can grow near his landmark berry stand and pie pantry in Davenport, where a rain-fed reservoir is dry.

He has moved most of his production to a ranch in San Mateo County because of the more reliable water supply. While the retail side of his business is healthy, the wholesale side — selling to markets such as New Leaf and Whole Foods — is suffering.

"We're going to lose money this year," he said. "We won't be able to replant here unless we get rain. This is the worst it's ever been."

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