California is in the grips of yet another drought

California is in the grips of yet another drought

Another year, another drought in California. Having recently returned from the state, however, Chris Losh suggests that what looks like a dire situation for the wine industry could actually present an opportunity to those keen on tending vines.

The good folk of Los Angeles like their lawns. So, when you see the city's hallowed turf being dug up and replaced by artificial grass, then you know something is badly wrong.

California is in the middle of a prolonged drought and, with Governor Jerry Brown ordering a 25% cut-back on domestic water use over the coming year, lawns are having to go.

Given that agriculture accounts for 80% of the state’s water use, critics have suggested that a 25% cut of the other 20% isn’t enough and that farming (including, obviously, the wine industry) will need to shoulder some of the burden. The problem, of course, is that Californian agriculture is a huge industry: worth some US$46bn and employing 1.7m people. Wine alone employs 330,000 in the state. Any changes that put it at risk need to be very carefully thought out, with the state’s politicians having to tread a fine line between addressing water shortages and not killing the industries affected in the process.

"We have learned from Australia that there is more we can do," says Karen Ross, the California's Secretary of Agriculture. "There is a lot we can do with recycled water. But, with the change in climate, our water use might have to change."

Ross is confident about the industry’s ability to find a solution through a "combination of high-tech and low-tech strategies. If any one place can get through this, it’s California. We have a spirit of innovation here," she says.

Wineries are quick to explain how, like the Australians, they have already improved their irrigation technology to deliver smaller amounts of water more precisely when and where needed, and how they use less water now than 20 years ago. Also, vines are certainly less thirsty than crops such as almonds and rice.

Yet the situation is getting worse. An estimated 500,000 acres of agricultural land are expected to be left fallow this year because farmers can’t find the water to irrigate them, and, while the wine industry isn’t yet affected to this extent, people are starting to get nervous.

"At some point, if we don’t have rain, we’ll have to look at other options," says Steve Lohr of J Lohr winery in hot, dry Paso Robles. "That 20% [cut] from domestic use isn’t going to change it."

As you would expect in an area the size of California, the peril is not shared out equally. While the cooler, more fog-affected areas within 70km of the coast are coping reasonably well, the Central Valley is suffering. The wines from here might not attract big scores from influential wine critics, but they’re the bedrock of the industry, supplying millions of litres of wine a year (some 70% of total production) – much of it at the more affordable end of the spectrum.

The water for these heavily-irrigated vineyards comes mostly from aquifers – and these are becoming dangerously depleted. Moreover, while some aquifers can recover from a drought, should those in the Central Valley run dry, there’s a very real danger that they will collapse and, therefore, be gone for good. "Even if it starts to rain again, they won’t fill back up. It’s hugely serious," says Lohr.

And, while vineyards in parts of Napa and Sonoma are able to use reclaimed ‘grey water’ from nearby towns, this isn’t an option for the Central Valley, where vineyards are vast and far from population centres. Some see the solution as being to switch to dry farming. But, while this could provide a means of reducing water consumption in the long term, it’s not possible in the short term simply to turn off the tap. Vines that have been irrigated all their life don’t have deep enough roots to survive without regular water supply.

And in any case, dry farming comes with cost implications. "We dry farmed until the 1960s," says Eric Wente of Wente Vineyards. "In a good year, it works well, but in a bad year it’s not economically viable."

Nor is this just a story about irrigation. A significant amount of California’s water use in the vineyard goes on frost protection. One winemaker estimated that a night of protective spraying can use ten times as much water as a day of irrigation. So, just three or four potential frosts could be the same as over a month of daytime watering. While switching to fans in the vineyard might help, they are only effective against certain types of cold weather; specifically, when there’s an inversion layer of warmer air. Otherwise, misting is the only option to avoid potentially-deleterious crop loss.

This particular element of water use, it would seem, is largely irreducible. And yet, while the three-year plus water shortage is undeniably serious, it might, oddly, work in favour of the wine industry.

Under the current offset scheme, farmers who remove a thirsty crop like alfalfa, are able to replant with an alternative that uses less water. And the relatively hardy (but poorly-paying) grapevine is looking increasingly attractive, in a way that it wasn’t ten years ago when there was far more money to be made elsewhere.

Going forward, three things seem relatively certain.

Firstly, most growers see this as a manifestation of climate change, rather than a once-in-a-generation set of freakishly dry years. Drought it may be, but it’s probably also the new reality, and California is going to have to live with it.

Secondly, if water shortages lead to smaller yields and higher prices in the Central Valley, the big bulk suppliers will need to top up their volumes with wines from elsewhere, which could be good news for growers in Chile, for instance.

Thirdly, however much new technology is being trialled, and however much the industry improves its efficiency, the most effective long-term solution is to harvest what water does fall more efficiently.

As Tom Klein of Rodney Strong Vineyards puts it: "California has a water shortage, but really we have a dam shortage. Our population has doubled, and we haven’t added a dam in 50 years."

Until they do, a whole lot more lawns are going to be laid over with plastic.