How California's Drought Is Reshaping Small Businesses

As the drought in California enters its fourth year, businesses up and down the state are increasingly feeling the impact.

Clevenger Ranch Vineyards in Paso Robles, Calif.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

As the drought in California enters its fourth year, businesses up and down the state are increasingly feeling the impact. From family-owned almond farms in the Central Valley to private hydroelectric power operators in the high Sierras, margins are being squeezed by low rainfall, minimal snowmelt, and the corresponding high water prices.

The region’s incredibly complex system of dams, reservoirs, and canals, created piecemeal over the better part of the past century, is also beginning to show its age. Dozens of the state’s vast artificial lakes and reservoirs are at lower-than-usual levels for this time of year, even before the start of summer, and government hydrologists say their forecast models are being shattered as current conditions continue to stray far outside normal parameters.

Even as some water-dependent businesses—especially in the agricultural sector—face a potentially ruinous year with record high prices, enterprising companies have seized on opportunities that large-scale public conservation programs provide in the form of municipal and regional rebates and incentives. The question now is whether many of the responses from municipal districts from local authorities are coming as too little, too late. 

Agricultural workers (left) picking asparagus near Firebaugh, Calif., one of several small towns in the western San Joaquin Valley struggling economically as record high water costs force farmers to let fields go fallow and local laborers lose work. A farm worker (right) at Del Bosque Farms in the San Joaquin Valley moves across a large field of vegetables, seeking asparagus spears no less than 7 inches high before severing them with a sharpened metal rod.

Agricultural workers (left) picking asparagus near Firebaugh, Calif., one of several small towns in the western San Joaquin Valley struggling economically as record high water costs force farmers to let fields go fallow and local laborers to lose work. A farm worker (right) at Del Bosque Farms in the San Joaquin Valley moves across a large field of vegetables, seeking asparagus spears no less than 7 inches high before severing them with a sharpened metal rod.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

Joe Del Bosque, a Californian farmer raised in the Central Valley, has shifted much of his business over the past decade, from the melons and cantaloupes he grew in his youth to the more water-intensive but profitable almond crop.

Joe Del Bosque, a Californian farmer raised in the Central Valley, has shifted much of his business over the past decade, from the melons and cantaloupes he grew in his youth to the more water-intensive but profitable almond crop.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

A tractor sprays insecticides onto rows of almond trees at Del Bosque Farms near Firebaugh, Calif. The trees are spaced about 22 feet apart to maximize water efficiency and sunlight.

A tractor sprays insecticides onto rows of almond trees at Del Bosque Farms near Firebaugh, Calif. The trees are spaced about 22 feet apart to maximize water efficiency and sunlight.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

Low water levels at the lake (left) formed by the Folsom Dam, just north of Sacramento, Calif. Minimal winter rainfall has failed to fill many major reservoirs in California, and a poor snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains means snowmelt will not replenish the water used for summertime hydroelectric power generation. Sprinklers (right) irrigate a field of produce on a farm outside of Gonzales in the Central Valley. Some farmers have embraced more efficient irrigation systems but are still forced to purchase water at 10 times the price available a decade ago.

Water levels are low at the lake (left) formed by the Folsom Dam just north of Sacramento, Calif. Minimal winter rainfall has failed to fill many major reservoirs in California, and a poor snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains means snowmelt will not replenish the water used for summertime hydroelectric power generation. Sprinklers (right) irrigate a field of produce on a farm outside Gonzales in the Central Valley. Some farmers have embraced more efficient irrigation systems but are still forced to purchase water at 10 times the price available a decade ago.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

Steve Atkins checks for blockages as he watches water flow in Pilot Creek, fed by Stumpy Meadows Lake near the Tunnel Hill Hydro hydroelectric power station in the mountains above Georgetown, Calif. The state's private hydroelectric operators are entitled to sell power to the public grid, but a minimal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains will significantly curtail their revenues this year.

Steve Atkins checks for blockages as he watches water flow in Pilot Creek, fed by Stumpy Meadows Lake near the Tunnel Hill Hydro power station in the mountains above Georgetown, Calif. The state's private hydroelectric operators are entitled to sell power to the public grid, but a minimal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains will significantly curtail their revenue this year.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

Atkins makes a regular check of the monitoring equipment at the private 500-kilowatt hydroelectric station, operated by Tunnel Hill Hydro, in the hills above Georgetown, Calif.

Atkins makes a regular check of the monitoring equipment at the private, 500-kilowatt hydroelectric station operated by Tunnel Hill Hydro in the hills above Georgetown, Calif.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

Atkins surveys the weak waterflow at privately owned Tunnel Hill Hydro. A handful of hydro-operators that largely rely on snowmelt to generate hydro power in the early months of summer in California will experienced dramatic declines in revenue this year, thanks to low rainfall levels and a drastically reduced snowpack.

Atkins surveys the weak water flow at privately owned Tunnel Hill Hydro. A handful of hydro-operators that largely rely on snowmelt to generate hydro power in the early months of summer in California will experience dramatic declines in revenue this year, thanks to low rainfall levels and a drastically reduced snowpack.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

A woman tees off at the North Ranch Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. A company called Integrity Golf is replacing more than 37 acres of turf with decomposed granite, mulch, and drought-resistant plants.

A woman tees off at the North Ranch Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. A company called Integrity Golf is replacing more than 37 acres of turf with decomposed granite, mulch, and drought-resistant plants.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

 

Workers dig fresh irrigation trenches at the North Ranch Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., part of a $3.2 million turf-replacement project funded by the local water utility's public rebate program.

Workers dig fresh irrigation trenches at the North Ranch Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., part of a $3.2 million turf-replacement project funded by the local water utility's public rebate program.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

 

A tiny remote-controlled drip-irrigation device and a newly-planted drought resistant shrub at the North Ranch Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The device releases just a gallon an hour, directed at the plant's roots, whereas a typical sprinkler uses at least 50 gallons an hour.

A tiny remote-controlled drip-irrigation device and a newly planted drought-resistant shrub at the North Ranch Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The device releases just a gallon an hour, directed at the plant's roots, whereas a typical sprinkler uses at least 50 gallons an hour.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

 

A team of workers from privately held Turf Terminators tear up a family's lawn in the Northridge area of Los Angeles without charge. The company's revenues come from rebates introduced by southern California's Metropolitan Water Authority as part of a $100 million annual conservation fund designed to offer incentives to lower residential water consumption.

A team of workers from privately held Turf Terminators tear up a family's lawn in the Northridge area of Los Angeles, without charge. The company's revenue comes from rebates introduced by southern California's Metropolitan Water Authority as part of a $100 million annual conservation fund designed to offer incentives to lower residential water consumption.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

 

A landscaper from Turf Terminators waters a newly implanted African Trailing Daisy as part of a turf-replacement project in a Northridge, Calif., front yard. The company is tearing up around 40 lawns a day, earning rebates from a public program designed to lower consumer consumption of water in southern California.

A landscaper from Turf Terminators waters a newly implanted African Trailing Daisy as part of a turf-replacement project in a Northridge, Calif., front yard. The company is tearing up around 40 lawns a day, earning rebates from a public program designed to lower residential consumption of water in southern California.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

 

A New Zealand Tea Tree plant with white flowers (left) and some lavender in a Northridge, Calif., front yard turf-replacement project.

A New Zealand Tea Tree plant with white flowers (left) and some lavender in a Northridge, Calif., front yard turf-replacement project.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg