There’s no silver bullet, but there may be actions you can take to prepare for the future.

Dr. Michael Payne
Director, California Dairy Quality Assurance Program

The U.S. is experiencing themost expansive western drought of the century. Between scant snowfall and warm temperatures, California’s snowpack is virtually gone, leaving the state’s reservoirs unreplenished. Although not yet as punishing as last decade’s 5-year drought, more than 85% of the state is in severe drought, and fully one third is in the worst category, exceptional drought. The governor has expanded drought state of emergency to 41 of the state’s 58 counties. Water deliveries have been slashed or suspended altogether.

Our current situation is further complicated by the pending implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, SGMA. While this 20-year long initiative promises to support long-term sustainability of agriculture, it will unquestionably involve future water conservation mandates for both urban and rural Californians.

In the midst of any significant drought, when water is this scarce, producer’s immediate options may be limited. Some California producers are curtailing irrigation to corn or alfalfa, while others are limiting the number of crop harvests. Some producers are considering more drought tolerant forages and rebalancing rations. Still others are fallowing forage crops outright, a particularly painful decision, especially given current feed prices.

For California dairy producers water scarcity, water uncertainty, periodic droughts and reduced allocations is the new normal for the foreseeable future. Depending on a producer’s location, facilities, and willingness to innovate however, there may be information, avenues and programs which could help mitigate some of the worst consequences of both future droughts and SGMA.

University Drought-Cropping Resources

The University of California system has consolidated all of its on-line drought information links into a single searchable drought homepage.  Drought information can be reviewed by sector, including Agriculture and Rangelands. Because the largest use of water on a dairy is for irrigation, producers might be particularly interested in white papers related to forage crops such as corn, alfalfa, and more drought tolerant crops such as sorghum. The webpage also has a section for seminar videos such as managing corn and alfalfa during drought and lessons learned from recent droughts. Lastly, the webpage also has a list of university water conservation experts organized by campus.

Emergency Relief (USDA–FSA)

The USDA’s Farm Services Agency, FSA, provides an expansive array of services ranging from ag loans and commodity support to conservation and disaster assistance. Only about nine of the agency’s approximately fifty national programs are related to drought, but two in particular may be applicable to dairies.

The Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) provides payments to eligible livestock producers for grazing losses due to a qualifying drought. Although limited in scope, this program is potentially useful for dairies that utilize non-irrigated grazing in their operations.

The Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) provides financial assistance for non-insurable crops (including those grown for livestock consumption) when natural disasters result in lower yields or prevents planting. Similar to insurance, a producer must have a policy in place prior to damage occurring. To be eligible the producer must have purchased coverage by the Application Closing Date and average adjusted gross income cannot exceed $900,000.

There are some dairies that have been forced to haul water to the farm. On occasion media reports have mentioned government assistance for drilling wells or hauling drinking water to livestock. Administered through FSA’s ELAP and ECP programs, this type of support is typically reserved for rangeland animals whose usual sources of drinking surface-water such as ponds or streams have dried up.

Given the extensive list of FSA services offered and varying eligibility requirements, producers interested in FSA programs should make an appointment with one of FSA’s numerous offices. Location and contact information for all USDA local offices can be located at the California Service Center Locator site. The office will advise callers on what identification and farm records will be helpful in expediting enrollment.


Infrastructure Improvements (USDA–NRCS)

California producers have long been familiar with the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program  (EQIP), which provides technical and financial assistance promoting environmental and economic sustainability. Unlike the FSA’s emergency drought response programs however, the NRCS water conservation projects are more focused on preparing the farm before drought strikes rather than responding to a drought crisis.

NRCS maintains different payment schedules for different types of assistance, but cost-share typically results in 25% to 80% of a project paid for by USDA. Farm Bill funding provided to NRCS for distribution will vary from year to year. For certain conservations practices, a limit to the amount of financial assistance has been established in some regions. If project funding is unavailable on a given year however, producers should consult with NRCS staff on potentially reapplying early the following year to increase the likelihood of success.

Related to drought resistance, NRCS supports four general categories: irrigation improvement and scheduling, vegetative practices and tillage management. A list of specific water conservation practices supported by California’s NRCS is some 35 items long, many related to ground and surface water depletion and irrigation inefficiency. As described in sections below, some of these approved practices could be relevant to two potentially effective projects on dairies, manure water drip irrigation and ground water recharge.

In addition to the usual EQIP funding, in June of 2021 NRCS announced that California will receive more than $22 million in additional EQIP funding as part of its new pilot Conservation Incentives Contracts (CIC) program. With a 5 year minimum commitment, CIC is envisioned as a stepping-stone between the flagship EQIP program and the comprehensive, whole-farm commitment of the Conservation Stewardship Program, CSP. The window for CIC 2021 funding is short however, with an application deadline of July 22.

NRCS has offices in all but three California counties and all are taking drought applications. Because of the numerous suites of programs and fund pools, the extensive list of approved practices and the varied eligibility requirements, producers will need assistance in identifying projects that would best fit their farms. Like the FSA, location and contact information for local NRCS offices can be located at the California Service Center Locator site.

Manure Subsurface Drip Irrigation (Manure SDI)

One of the most recent and novel water conservation practices approved by NRCS is the use of Subsurface Drip Irrigation for lagoon water, Manure SDI. NRCS’s acceptance of the technology was based on research organized by Sustainable Conservation, (SusCon) one of CDQAP’s partner organizations. In a two-and-a-half-year study performed on three California dairies, fields with silage corn on average saw a 2.5% increase in yield with a 35% reduction in water used compared to adjacent control fields using just flood irrigation. Added environmental benefits include a 47% increase in nutrient use efficiency, thus protecting groundwater, and even a 70-90% reduction in Green House Gases.

SusCon estimates installation costs at about $3,400 per acre, about $1,200 more than a conventional (clean water) subsurface drip system. Sticker price might be a bit daunting, but NRCS-EQIP contracts typically pay for about 75% to 80% of the costs including pump equipment, filter, drip tape and installation. With EQIP cost-share support and at a water cost of $75 per acre foot, SusCon estimates switching to manure SDI results in a positive Return-on-Investment of $97 per acre. Without EQIP cost-sharing, SusCon estimates that the manure SDI technology returns a positive investment when water costs reach about $210 per acre foot.

A introductory video on the technology is available from its manufacturer, Netafim, as well as a comprehensive brochure which describes considerations for producers considering the system. SusCon reports at least four systems have already installed on dairies, six more have been funded by NRCS and a seventh is proceeding at the grower’s cost without outside funding. There is certainly competition for NRCS funding for these projects with at least 20 EQIP applications made. Dairies that do not receive funding automatically go back into the que for the next round, so it is prudent for producers to make application as soon as possible.

The Netafim Manure SDI lead is Domonic Rossini who can be contacted at (661) 809-6282 or The company has also trained and certified seven dealers in California to oversee design, installation and management of manure drip systems. These include GAR Bennett, Cal West Rain, Landmark Irrigation, Streamline, Laurel Ag, Waterford Irrigation and Pacific South-West Irrigation.

Groundwater Recharge

As the state’s population, industry and agriculture has grown, so has its thirst for groundwater which provides 40 to 60 percent of California’s water supply.  Mining groundwater without replacement has stressed the state’s water resources, leaving some towns without safe drinking water, accelerating land subsidence (sinking) and leading to ecological damage.

One tool already being used successfully is Flood-Managed Aquifer Recharge (Flood-MAR). The practice is an integrated, voluntary strategy that uses flood water, from either rainfall or snowmelt, applied to agricultural lands and working landscapes to replenish groundwater. Recharge efforts spearheaded by the State’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) are varied and complex, involving many partners and projects. Projects underway range from expanding storage and conveyance infrastructure to coordination with newly created Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, GSAs. One recent report notes most available storm runoff occurs in the north part of the state while the best recharge lands are in the south, suggesting the need for additional infrastructure to channel flood flows to needed basins.

Groundwater Recharge of agricultural lands and working landscapes is already being used in California.

With the pending implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, SGMA, regions most severely impacted by groundwater overdrafts are developing protection strategies, called Groundwater Sustainability Plans or GSPs, which include water budgets. Groundwater recharge provisions for orchards, row crops and in some water basins, even dairy farms are already being written into some GSPs.

While there are multiple ways GSAs could structure recharge programs, one option they might chose is to allow dairies to buy surface water during winter and spring flooding at a nominal rate and apply it to either active farm land or fallowed fields. Once purchased and applied, the water now belongs to the farmer who is simply “banking” it in the local aquifer, ready for “withdrawal” pumping during the dry months, when the cost of water is much higher or simply unavailable.

It is essential that producers understand that groundwater recharge would only occur with clean flood water. Simply emptying lagoon water in a non-agronomic fashion during the winter months would defeat the purpose of recharge and would violate groundwater protection regulatory mandates.

Groundwater recharge is not a strategy that will work for all farmers or ranchers, there are many caveats. Obviously, a producer will need access to local surface water delivery and a farm conveyance infrastructure to move and hold it. There are geologic considerations; in some regions the ground water level may simply be too high or the soil type not permeable enough to support recharge.

Just as problematic is that of seasonable availability, storm runoff will not be available in all years. As the practice is extensively adapted, in any given year there will likely be competition for winter flood water. Besides farmers desiring recharge water, there will also be municipal claims and environmental mandates. There is already concern that projected volumes of available flood water have been overestimated in some basins.

Finally, a site’s potential for worsening groundwater quality may be a consideration in determining its suitability for groundwater recharge. There may be some dairies or areas on dairies that would not be appropriate as groundwater recharge areas. Sustainable Conservation recently released a brief developed with a range of stakeholders, on water quality considerations for recharge.

Producers interested in participating in voluntary groundwater recharge should consider taking the following actions:

Become active in your local GSA – Involvement in your local Groundwater Sustainability Agency, GSA, will not only keep you current with looming challenges but will allow you to lobby for opportunities potentially beneficial for your local dairy community. Initiate discussions on the potential for incorporating dairy groundwater recharge, if it’s not already on the table.  You can identify your GSA here. Alternatively, you can discuss becoming involved in your GSA with your dairy trade organization representative.

Document your current flood water recharge – Even in the absence of a mechanism to receive credit for it, some producers are already replenishing their local groundwater. If and when they are subjected to local water budgeting, documentation of a history of this conservation practice could be useful during allocation negotiations.

Don’t remove flood irrigation infrastructure – As described above, some producers are installing Subsurface Drip Irrigation to minimize water use. Producers moving partially or fully towards SDI, and who think they might employ local groundwater recharge in the future, may consider retaining their flood irrigation infrastructure to repurpose it for later recharge efforts.

Ensure your farm is in nitrogen balance – It is likely that when allocating flood water for recharge, GSAs will prioritize projects that are anticipated as doing the least harm to the groundwater. Farms and dairies with a documentable history of appropriate application of nutrients may be viewed as less problematic than sites with higher content of legacy nitrates in the soil. Attention to mitigating groundwater nitrate is important not only for groundwater recharge purposes. Adopting farm practices that ensure a nutrient balance, (such as agronomic application and nitrate export off-farm) are the focus of existing and new pending water quality regulations.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, SGMA

A comprehensive discussion of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, SGMA is beyond the scope of this article, but its implications are important. Passed in 2014 SGMA’s three component bills created a statewide framework to help protect groundwater resources over the long-term.SGMA requires locals agencies to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) for the high & medium priority basins. GSAs are required to develop and implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs). Plans in critically over-drafted sub-basins are in fact already being implemented, with the requirement to achieve sustainability by 2040.

Projected costs for agriculture will be significant. Dairies with limited access to surface water are likely be most affected. More than 250 GSAs have already been created with more indevelopment. Of these perhaps 30 are important to critical dairy populations. Some estimates put 20-25% of the state’s milk production as having significant SGMA exposure. Producers can learn more about SGMA by visiting the California Department of Water Resources SGMA webpage, which includes links to an introductory video and comprehensive SGMA briefing document.

Consumer Outreach and Education

Of all of agriculture, dairies are the undisputed authorities on water conservation and recycling. There is never a more critical time to remind our customers and regulatory partners of the facts of dairy water efficiency then during a state-wide drought emergency.

Four central messages particularly may resonate with consumers:

Dairies produce more milk with less water and fewer cows – There are in fact actually far fewer dairies and dairy cows now then there was a half century ago. Since the 1940s the number of U.S. dairy farms has decreased from more than 4 million to 65,000, with the number of dairy cows declining from 25 million head to just 9 million.

Dairies have reduced water use by up to 90% per gallon of milkResearch by Cornell University demonstrated because of recycling, conservation and production efficiency, nationally today it takes 65 percent less water to produce the same gallon of milk that it took U.S. dairy farmers back in 1944. Similar studies specific to California document how from 1964 to 2014 water use intensity has been reduced by 88.1 to 89.9% primarily due to improved feed crop production and water-use efficiency.

Dairies typically recycle water four times – On an average California dairy, the same gallon of water is typically used to 1) help cool the milk to refrigeration temperatures, 2) clean cows and the stainless-steel milking equipment, 3) wash out the barns and finally 4) as irrigation water to raise forage crops like hay and corn to feed the cows.

Dairies are investing in water conservation and research – Aside from the short-term actions and long-term infrastructure improvements described above, the dairy industry supports a suite of water conservation research projects. Industry funding awarded through the California Dairy Research Foundation (CDRF) have supported investigation into water use estimation, irrigation system automation, water-saving soil amendments, drought-resilient feed crops and efficient cow cooling.

Fortunately, there are a number of dairy organizations with communication experts developing outreach in friendly, consumer accessible formats:

  • California Milk Advisory Board – The CMAB and its collaborative dairy communications team has for years educated consumers on a wide variety of dairy sustainability efforts. CMAB recently released water stewardship tiles (mini-infographics) which are easily distributed through a variety for social media platforms. These tiles address include California water use, dairy water use and water saved by feeding by-products to dairy cows.
  • Dairy CARES – Comprised of representative members from the farm to the processing plant, the Dairy CARES non-profit remains a reliable source of information for the media, the public and government. One of the organization’s most recent publications explains how dairies are using a variety of technologies to conserve water.
  • Western United Dairies – WUD’s #GreenCow project documents how California dairy families are leading the world in environmental sustainability, including methane reduction, by-product recycling and water conservation.