Strawberry fields forever? Thirsty Baja turns to desalination to grow lucrative berries

An arid region 180 miles south of Tijuana is the crossroads where strawberries, economics and groundwater meet. Baja California usually gets fewer than 3 inches of rain annually and, like much of the West, drought has stretched on for decades. But strawberries grown for export have become so valuable, farmers keep trying to grow more, and they’re allowed to use more groundwater than nature replenishes.

SAN QUINTIN, Baja California, Mexico – For Americans, what probably matters most in this story are the strawberries. For most Mexicans in the northern Baja peninsula, what matters is the robust economy strawberries bring. For some, what matters most is the steady loss of the fresh groundwater that makes strawberries possible here.

The San Quintín Valley, an arid region 180 miles south of Tijuana, is the crossroads where strawberries, economics, and groundwater meet. The average rainfall in northern Baja California is fewer than 3 inches annually; there is a multiyear drought. For a century, groundwater irrigated local crops. But strawberries grown for export have become so valuable, farmers keep trying to grow more, and are allowed to use more groundwater than nature replenishes.

Visitors can see this meeting place while riding along the two-lane highway through the valley towns. These sprawl at crazy angles in what academics call “anarchic growth.” Each year brings more ramshackle homes for workers, along with more cellphone towers, gas stations, condos and places to eat. Seemingly endless fields of strawberries surround town centers, which are continuously under construction. Old American school buses shuttle workers to and from the fields; trucks carry lumber and cement to construction sites, all amid clouds of dust.

Covering the strawberries reduces evaporation and water use. (Photo: Alan Harper via Flickr)

That’s the picture today. What will it be tomorrow? Will the engine of strawberries continue powering the economy? Or will it run out of gas — or, more accurately, fresh groundwater?

Sárah Eva Martínez, dean of academic affairs at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a small college in Tijuana whose researchers have done meticulous studies of agriculture, water and energy in the valley’s 1,437 square miles, speculated that the strawberry fields may not last. The government-supported system of overdrafting groundwater is “not working, and they will get to a critical point when they see that they just can’t go on any longer,” she said.

Is treated seawater an answer to the water shortage?

There is another possibility: using water from the Pacific Ocean, after taking out the salt. What happens in the next decade or two will decide whether the San Quintín Valley towns begin to resemble Colorado ghost towns whose mines played out, or continue to expand as farmers use strawberry profits to pay the immense cost of treating seawater.

In the health-conscious world of 2018 America, strawberries are the agricultural equivalent of gold. Americans in 2012 ate an average of 7.9 pounds of strawberries per person, up from 4.9 pounds in the year 2000. Most are grown in California and Florida, but about 14 percent come from Mexico. Of these, 49 percent come from the San Quintín Valley. Meeting the demand for the berries has made Baja agriculture very lucrative.

In 1987, the first year of winter berry production, roughly 9,000 tons were produced in the San Quintin Valley, Colegio de la Frontera Norte researchers calculate; in 2013, production was 120,600 tons. In 2013, winter berries had a minimum value of 1.88 billion pesos — about $145 million worth.

Strawberries are the most lucrative crop, but tomatoes, also grown for export, cover almost twice as many acres. The valley’s intensive agriculture depends on the four aquifers beneath the towns of Camalú, Vicente Guerrero and San Quintín. All four are overdrafted annually, according to CONAGUA, the national water agency. The hydraulics of aquifers near the coast ensure that overpumping leads to saltwater intrusion, as the weight of fresh groundwater becomes unequal to the weight of the underground reaches of the Pacific Ocean. The saltier the water, the worse for strawberries, which are stunted and less tasty. As pumping exceeds the rate of natural recharge, the groundwater basins have gotten saltier.

“Intensification of horticultural production has also contributed to a dramatic decline in the region’s water quality … (and) caused sustained saltwater intrusion in the watersheds, which severely affected wells used for irrigation,” wrote Christian Zlolniski, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, Arlington, in a 2011 edition of the journal “Cultural Anthropology.”

Two decades ago, farmers chose between cleaning the groundwater or reduced pumping and lower yields. They chose the former. J. Alberto Torres, an agent of the Ensenada municipal water agency, CESPE, said the first desalination plant appeared in 1994. CONAGUA reports there now are 83.

Their size varies.

“Some can fit inside a truck container that runs from 50 to 150 gallons a minute,” said William Hedrick, the operations vice president of the large BerryMex farms. These are the small ones. Larger ones produce “up to a plant that can range as high as 2,000 gallons a minute.” CONAGUA reports that nearly 8,400 acre-feet of water (the amount needed to cover 1 acre with 1 foot of water) is used annually on 12,000 acres of crops.

Subsidies underwrite energy-intensive desalination process

Both pumping and desalination plants require government permits and, often, subsidies. A scholar with contacts in the berry-growing industry said they confirm that the government subsidizes electricity for desalination.

Hugo Riemann, a senior researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera, said he has repeatedly sought data on these subsidies — which his research showed can reduce electrical costs by two-thirds — but he has not been successful.

The groundwater supply here was never abundant. Before winter strawberries came in 1987, the big cash crop was tomatoes. Before that, people lived by fishing and growing onions, potatoes, carrots and chili peppers.

“We know pumping and water consumption in the area puts a big burden on the aquifers,” said Hedrick, the BerryMex executive. More than 74,000 acres of land in the San Quintín Valley had been devoted to the older version of local agriculture in the 1980s, he said. Now, with less water — and lower-quality water — available for the strawberry and tomato crops, the land under cultivation is less than 20,000 acres.

BerryMex, which supplies Driscoll’s, the Watsonville, California, berry giant, plans a new future.

“We’re in the middle of an ambitious project” to desalinate seawater, Hedrick said. “We are in the process of installing a plant — it’s 70 percent complete — on the Pacific coast of the town of San Quintín. Our future in the region going forward is totally dependent on seawater desalination.”

The company aims to use solar power for the plant. A BerryMex spokeswoman declined to give the plant’s cost, saying company finances are private.

The proliferation of subsidies of the San Quintín Valley wells, desalination plants and the electricity they need, “is as crazy as it looks,” said Jay Famiglietti, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “But it seems to be the norm. We are seeing it all over the world: massive overdraft, lack of groundwater oversight and the desire to find some mythical, unlimited future source of water.” To have Baja’s desalination plants subsidized, Famiglietti said, “is a good idea for the farmer. It’s a bad idea for the health of the aquifers.”

So BerryMex is turning to the sea. Leopoldo Mendoza Espinoza, a professor at the Oceanographic Research Institute at the University of Baja California in Ensenada, said the BerryMex plant represents “the first time that seawater is being desalinated for agricultural purposes” in Mexico. There have been recent efforts do to the same in Spain.

His reaction to the existing desalination of the groundwater is mixed. “I don’t like natural systems being depleted for any purpose…” But, “it is really hard to argue against the number of jobs produced, and the wages they pay.” An alternative, reusing wastewater, wouldn’t work, he said. “I’m a very big advocate of wastewater reuse, like they do in Israel. But really there is no large urban area in San Quintín that would produce enough reclaimed water for irrigation.”

More berries bring more workers – and more burdens

The area’s misfortune is a fragile groundwater supply. Its good fortune is its proximity to the United States. About 180 miles up the road is the border where strawberries turn to gold.

As the valley’s yields grow, so does the number of farm workers. Many are from Oaxaca, near the Guatemalan border. They were an itinerant labor force, but many now live permanently in such towns as Camalú, Vicente Guerrero and San Quintín. In 2010, the population of San Quintín was 9,492, more than double the 1990 total of 4,374.

Workers are employed by big operations, such as BerryMex and Los Pinos, or by midsize farms. For months in 2015, workers staged a strike over wages and living conditions. One thing highlighted during the unrest: In a place whose economy depends on water and migrants, there is clean water for crops but not for all workers.

“Our future in the region going forward is totally dependent on seawater desalination.”

William Hedrick, BerryMex

More than 95 percent of the water in the valley goes for irrigation, the Mexican government reports. Academic researchers at Colegio de la Frontera Norte put the national average at about 77 percent. The population of the entire valley jumped to 92,177 in 2010, up from 38,151 in 1990, according to a 2014 paper done by Marie Laure Coubès, Laura Velasco and Zlolniski.

In the town of San Quintín, 1,667 households – 17.6 percent of the population — had no fresh water piped into their homes in 2010, according to state data. Trucks carrying fresh water, for a price, roam the highway.

Three years ago, strikers demanded desalinated water for people. Now a consortium consisting of an American company, RWL Water Group, and two Mexican partners is building $32 million new desalination plant to serve residents.

The growing harvest, the increase in workers and the strike are the culmination of 24 years of desalination. The first plant was built in 1994, Torres said. With it began this cycle: Desalination plants clean brackish groundwater, which means more pumping. Which means saltier groundwater. The level of dissolved solids in seawater is 34,000 parts per million. Hedrick said that the levels in at least one of the San Quintín basins exceed 10,000 ppm. For strawberries, irrigation water should not exceed 450 ppm, more than 2,000 ppm is ruinous.

Using some of the techniques adopted by Driscoll’s Berries near the Central California coast, San Quentín farmers work to conserve water. They use drip irrigation, and some berries now grow in high cylindrical plastic greenhouses — Hedrick calls them “tunnels” — that cover fields with tightly bunched rows of off-white fabric.

“Equipped with sophisticated irrigation, microclimate control, and fertilization systems, production in such shielded environments requires less water… and generates higher yields and better quality crops,” Zlolniski wrote.

There are two ways to see the transformation of the valley. Said Sárah Martínez, the Colegio de la Frontera Norte dean, “If you ask people now living in San Quintín, they’d say it’s for the good. They don’t have fresh water, but they have a lot of other things. If you go to the regional level, the state of Baja would say it’s good because it creates value.” Referring to politicians’ terms of office here, she added, “the government is here for six years. It doesn’t care what happens in 20 years’ time.”

Martínez cares. “The problems they are building for the middle term are much bigger than the short-term problems they are solving. But how do you make people have a long-term view?”

Seth M. Siegel, who wrote “Let There Be Water,” a 2015 overview of Israeli water systems, explained that governments subsidize desalination because “what they are buying is social stability. They are buying lower unemployment levels.” Part of the cost is heavy energy use and creating harmful, concentrated brine which, if dumped in the ocean, contaminates marine ecosystems.

Dumping brine is bad enough. But, Siegel said, compared with the energy drain of a desalination plant, “The idea of allowing an aquifer to become saline is a far greater threat to the environment. Even with a big (ocean) desalination plant, the amount of energy needed … and fish problems is all modest, compared to the catastrophic effect of Baja aquifers being ruined.”

This story was originally published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.