Could meters be the key to conserving water in California agriculture? Watsonville growers explain

WATSONVILLE, Calif. (KGO) -- As he set goals last Thursday for the Bay Area to conserve water, Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged the lack of metering provides no sense of how much water is used by California agriculture. Growers in the Watsonville area in Santa Cruz County, however, are metered, and the meters have resulted in significant water conservation

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This time of year, the fields around Watsonville are producing berries, lettuce, broccoli and celery -- crops valued at close to $1 billion. Something else has sprouted in the fields -- about one thousand meters that measure how much groundwater is being tapped to irrigate the crops. As agriculture boomed, so did concerns about the aquifer and an incursion of saltwater.

The Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency was an early user of meters, dating back 30 years ago.

Its success may become a model for other parts of the state in need of conserving every gallon of water possible.

Javier Zamora is a strawberry grower.

"If we see our crew that they're probably watering two and a half hours versus an hour and a half, we have a way to figure out that count or the amount of water that is being used. Perhaps it's been wasted," Zamora said.

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The meters, along with other conservation measures, have reduced water use dramatically -- by nearly 3.1 billion gallons over the past four years, compared to a decade ago. That's the equivalent of filling 77 and half million bathtubs. Besides the meters, the water agency staff works with growers to use water efficiently.

"We look at what kind of crops are being grown every summer so we can track not only how much water is being used but what are the cropping patterns within the valley on every summer's basis," said Brian Lockwood, general manager of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency.

Historically, California growers used to draft as much groundwater as they wanted for free. A few have resisted the meters by not allowing the Pajaro Valley agency access to their land. Their use is estimated with aerial photography.

Zamora believes growers, working with the water agency, are committed to good stewardship.

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"They're paying attention to what's going on, making sure that we are sustainable and this valley will have water, you know, 30, 40 years from now for our future farming generations," Zamora said.

Under state regulations passed in 2014, other water agencies are required to develop plans to achieve groundwater sustainability within 20 years.

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