Water touches every part of the beverage creation process, from growing ingredients to creating the final products themselves. But as revealed in Part Two of this series, much of the water used to create alcoholic beverages is actually earmarked for cleaning and sanitation rather than what goes into the consumable goods.

Coffee cherries growing at Mraz Family Farm.

In agriculture, water is used a bit differently. For growers, water worries start long before the first sprouts peek through the soil. “All farmers are concerned about water,” says Jay Ruskey, CEO and co-founder of Frinj Coffee, a Southern California-based farm collective that hopes to make the region a regular and viable contributor to the global coffee scene. To Ruskey, responsible stewardship and water efficiency are inescapable factors that everyone—in San Diego and beyond—needs to be acutely aware of in the face of looming climate change. “I have been farming for over 30 years, and have quite an expansive network of knowledgeable farmers globally,” he says. “Everyone seems to see and feel the change.”

Mraz Family Farm, one of 47 farms producing coffee beans for Frinj Coffee.

Coffee typically thrives in warmer, more tropical environments closer to the Equator than San Diego’s Mediterranean climate. But Ruskey’s farms use a number of sustainability measures to both diversify farmers’ outputs as well as maximize water usage. “Coffee, like avocados, takes somewhere between 3–4 acre-foot of water per year, depending on the rain that year, days of extreme heat, and soil type,” he explains. “A majority of new farms are interplanting with avocados so that is an easier transition for growers, and the water demand is about the same. We have early findings which demonstrate that additional soil sensor monitoring and electronic controls can help us reduce water use by up to 30%, while improving plant performance and increased revenues per acre.”

Avocados have faced a decreasing valuation for several years, with the San Diego Union-Tribune reporting a multimillion-dollar drop in revenue in tandem with increasing irrigation costs. Interplanting with coffee helps protect growers from potentially going out of business, as well as adding a higher-priced crop to their offerings—a win-win for Frinj farmers.

Image: Frinj Coffee.

Organic Doesn't Always Mean Sustainable

One measure that Frinj does not require of its growers is organic certification, and while that may seem surprising coming from a group committed to sustainability, it might not actually be such a bad thing. New York’s Columbia Climate School explains that while “organic farming is widely considered to be a far more sustainable alternative when it comes to food production,” citing the lack of pesticides and a greater potential for biodiversity as benefits that conventional farming can’t match, “scientists are concerned that organic farming has far lower yields as compared to conventional farming, and so requires more land to meet demand.” 

Basically, organic farms may be better for reducing impact on local waterways, but may also contribute an overall greater greenhouse gas impact due to the larger slices of land necessary for true organic growth. In San Diego, where the number of rural housing developments continues to increase (cutting into available farmland and ecological preserves), the benefits of pursuing organic certification may not outweigh the challenges. 

One local beverage company that does rely on organic produce is Oceanside-based Suja, a cold-pressed juice maker that uses a high-pressure extraction method rather than heat during the product creation process. This retains nutrients from the produce used—like locally grown kale, beets, spinach, and more—and avoids common preservatives in favor of keeping their juices refrigerated instead of shelf-stable.

But relying exclusively on local produce to reduce their carbon footprint leaves companies like Suja more vulnerable during dry spells, wildfires, and droughts—dangers that Californians regularly face. A recent media package from Eater dives into the climate change catastrophe looming over the world’s food and drink supply systems: “Even if you’ve had the luxury of paying no mind to climate change, you will eventually taste it.”

Claude "Bud" Lewis Carslbad Desalination Plant. Image: Phil Augustavo.

Droughts Cause Salty Water

It’s not just a lack of water poised to parch the world’s farms. “Salt is always the hidden problem of a drought,” says Ruskey. “It’s not just that you run out of water—it’s that your water gets saltier.” He points to the difference between the availability of water and its quality. For instance, despite the massive quantity of water seemingly available from the Pacific Ocean, “it’s not quality water,” he says. Desalination efforts across the state have been underway for decades including the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant—which delivers 50 million gallons of desalinated water to San Diegans daily but remains only one piece of San Diego’s efforts to minimize our vulnerability. Two-thirds of all water generated within San Diego County still comes from other sources, including reservoirs like San Vicente and Sweetwater.

The dam at Sweetwater Reservoir. Image: Sherry V. Smith.

Reservoirs remain precipitously reliant on rainfall, which can affect their quality as well as quantity of water. “As certain water reservoirs, whether they be above ground or below ground, get reduced, the concentration of those salts get higher,” says Ruskey. “Then we put them on the trees, and as we irrigate and drip in specific patterns to conserve, when the plant takes the water in or gets evaporated from the ground, the salts are too heavy or too bound to the soil. That creates a higher saltier environment, which raises the pH, which is a constant problem in Southern California. That’s why we rely on our rains to help push the salt out of the soil.”

The Public Policy Institute of California reports that while “agricultural water use is falling,” the “economic value of farm production is growing,” saying that 80% of water used goes to agricultural irrigation. Still, even the most calculated and efficient water measures can only squeeze so much out of every drop. Most recently, a catastrophically low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range had left California’s more than 1,500 reservoirs at least 50% lower than they should be, as reported by AP News. Even Lake Oroville, which provides water for a quarter of the crops grown in the entire United States, hit a new record low late this summer and it was revealed that San Diego’s major water source, the Colorado River, is drying up faster than anyone predicted. Those with newer or fewer water rights to the source can expect reduced access to badly needed water. 

Due to low water levels, Lake Oroville was forced to close its hydropower plant in August 2021 for the first time since it opened in 1967. Image: Rebecca L. Pittman.

Despite both businesses and individuals in California reducing their water usage after decades of drought, California officials like Governor Gavin Newsom are proposing a number of million (if not billion) dollar initiatives to repair agricultural aqueducts, improve water reliability for rural communities, and implement environmental monitoring for future changes. Expanding the regions under a “drought emergency declaration” would alleviate demand on certain watersheds, but would immediately impact the agricultural community before the producers and consumers begin to feel the effects. 

Although different food and drink segments acquire and use water in a variety of ways, growers and makers in each category are facing the inevitability of climate change. How they choose to confront those ongoing and continuously developing challenges remains to be seen.

Up Next: Part Four will be the final part of this series and will look to the future of water in Southern California. From political promises to climate change projections, infrastructure, and more, we’ll unpack the tangly network of where our water has come from, where it will come from, and how much we can expect to retain as temperatures and costs continue to rise. Is our future auspicious or hopeless? Stay tuned.

Hero image: Marcus Spiske.

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