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A world-class farmer at the crossroads of California's drought

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

June 12, 2015

Dan Errotabere farms at the crossroads of the drought, in the sprawling Westlands Water District in the western San Joaquin Valley, the largest irrigation district in the country. It’s a political powerhouse in Washington, an antagonist to environmentalists and a region state officials call the “largest at-risk area” for farming.

In many ways, Errotabere symbolizes the best in California agriculture. His irrigation practices are world-class. His productivity is stunning. His soils are rich alluvials, ideal for growing delicate, fresh produce.

Errotabere has received no water from the Central Valley Project, the federal system that delivers water to farms and others, for two years running.

He has fallowed 1,200 of the 3,600 acres he farms, abandoning onions, lettuce and melons for higher-value crops such as tomatoes, garlic, garbanzo beans and almonds. He grows those because his water is valuable.

He has paid $1,100 an acre-foot for water from farmers to the north who hold senior rights and get their water for less than $200 an acre-foot.

And he’s pumping groundwater from 1,500-foot wells, deeper than the Transamerica Pyramid is tall.

“We’re cutting back as much as I can,” Errrotabere said. “But I can’t do all of it. Like any other business, I can’t stop farming and then come back next year to begin farming again.”

Every acre is watered by buried drip irrigation run by computer programs that calibrate soil and plant moisture. Plants are delivered the precise amount of water to their roots exactly when they need it.

Jean Errotabere points out a solar-powered wireless valve used to control the watering time for their drip-system on Errotabere Ranches' land April 9, 2015 in the Westlands Water District in Five Points, Calif. The Errotaberes fallowed 1,200 acres of land this year. Westlands is the largest agricultural water district in the country, providing water to 700 farms in over 1,000 square miles of land in the Central Valley. Leah Millis/The Chronicle

In most districts, water still flows in open ditches, and nobody monitors wells. In Westlands, every pipe is buried. Every well is metered. Landscape watering is banned.

Errotabere worries about the aquifer. With reduced water deliveries, everyone is pumping groundwater, more than a million acre-feet in Westlands over the past two years.

“The water table’s falling, so I’m not sure how much can we keep going down,” Errotabere said. “The problem is, I can only park so much of the farm before we become unsustainable.”

He blames the water shortage on a 1992 law by former Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, that requires that some water be devoted to the environment.

Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham agreed, calling Miller “the father of the almond industry in the San Joaquin Valley.”

The law forced farmers “to abandon lower-valued crops and take the water that was available to them and devote it to higher-value crops,” Birmingham said. “Almonds are the highest-value crop grown on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.”

Errotabere makes no apologies for making money. “The Ma and Pa Kettle type of model doesn’t exist today,” he said, “because we have these capital challenges.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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