Doug Phillips: San Joaquin Valley’s Water Trail
Tucked away against the foothills in Southern San Joaquin Valley there are mile-long rows of kiwi vines and citrus groves producing sweet fruit that eventually ends up for sale in grocery stores across the nation. In this geographic section of the San Joaquin Valley, Doug Phillips is one of many growers who tend permanent crops — trees and vines.
Doug’s appreciation for the natural landscape and outdoors goes beyond caring for the crops he grows, but extends to the wildlife that depend upon the farmland.
Drawn by the irrigation water, there is an abundance of wildlife such as the American Bald Eagle and Kestrel Hawk near his home, located in a rural area of Visalia. In fact, these animals are now part of the habitat that rely on irrigation water which flows to produce fruits and nuts in the region.
Doug is also an avid photographer who documents the thriving wildlife with impressive photos.
He is in the perfect situation to do so. Doug owns Phillips Farms based in Visalia and is a fourth generation grower with cherries, peaches, plums lemons, navel oranges and kiwi. With each visit to the field (usually multiple times a week), his camera goes with him.
How it started
Doug’s photography of birds started when hummingbirds began to appear in his backyard at home, also located the rural area surrounding the city of Visalia. The hummingbirds continue to thrive and he estimates there are hundreds that have taken up residence in the surrounding orchards.
His fascination grew after spotting an Orioles and then a Western Taninger.
He invested in equipment with the capacity to capture wildlife in action, including an Osprey in flight after it snagged a fish from an irrigation canal. The photos capture raw and intimate depictions of the wildlife.
As a whole, the photos seem to belong in an edition of National Geographic, but instead they are in Doug’s office. Mostly framed, the photographs feature emerald green hummingbirds, white pelicans, periwinkle blue roadrunners and many other species. All have been photographed within a 25-mile radius of Doug’s Visalia office and 99% of those birds were photographed either in or around irrigation water.
There’s a powerful story he is trying to share through the pictures.
“Down here where we are farming, we’ve got to have water where we are growing crops.” Doug said explaining that the water isn’t just to grow food but serves as a habitat for birds and wildlife.
Doug has seen all types of wildlife his entire life and hopes to continue to see them flourish.
This region of the San Joaquin Valley was formerly a Riparian Woodland surrounded by Savannah Grasslands before it was developed into agricultural land, he said to illustrate that the area in its natural state would be an ideal setting for wildlife. The type of habitat that existed before the region was developed is important because the perception is that the entire San Joaquin Valley is naturally a desert.
Some quick background: in 2014 and 2015, California had a major drought that wrecked havoc on groundwater supplies. Growers, like Doug, have two sources of ag water: surface water and ground water, and typically, about half of the supply comes from each source. The exception would be in a drought situation because surface water is sourced on a year by year basis dependent on rainfall and snow melt. This water is collected in reservoirs and then released down stream into rivers and canals where it eventually reaches farms and ranches.
Based on the surface water availability, water allocations are made to irrigation districts that manage a region. Some districts received zero allocation in 2014 and 2015 which forced growers (east side of the Valley) to rely on groundwater.
Doug remembers the groundwater tables plummeting downward when 90-95% of the water he used to irrigate his permanent crops came out of the ground.
“It created a situation where some wells were going dry or (without enough water) production was greatly reduced,” Doug said.
Fortunately, the situation changed in 2016 and in the current year with ample rainfall which took pressure off of groundwater resources needed to irrigate. Doug explained the rainfall also allowed the farming community to start re-charging underground aquifers, but not enough to fully recover from the water used in 2014 and 2015.
For Phillips Farms, their surface water is sourced from the Friant-Kern Canal (Millerton Lake) and Kaweah River. In 2014 and 2015, the Friant Irrigation District received 0% water allocation which meant only a minimal amount of surface water was available from the Kaweah River, he said.
Us vs. Them
To make matters worse, future water allocations that would be destined to farms would be re-directed for other uses. Those with water rights from the Friant-Kern Canal may lose a portion of their water supplies in order to restore a portion of the San Joaquin River.
Doug explained, the Friant-Kern Canal contractors were sued for more water to replenish the San Joaquin River in order to reestablish salmon.
“We have water rights to the water that flows out of the Friant-Kern Canal but the suit resulted in a court ruling in favor of directing water to the San Joaquin River to essentially create a way for salmon to move up stream,” he said. “Currently, the salmon can move up to Stanislaus but the ruling is to reestablish (salmon) all the way up to the dam.”
It’s called the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act and has two primary goals: restoration and water management. Restoration will re-establish naturally producing and self-sustaining populations of salmon and other fish on the San Joaquin River just below Friant Dam to the Merced River. For water management, the goal is to minimize or avoid any negative impacts to those long term contractors that rely on the water supplies as the restoration is taking place. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
From Doug’s perspective, there is a two-prong problem with committing surface water to extend the salmon run. First, surface water is needed to protect the limited groundwater supplies and second, wildlife are depending on the flow of surface water.
Without a supply of surface water, ag production isn’t sustainable and will negatively affect the habitat in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley.
“I am all for sharing water with a portion of the water into river restoration and wildlife refuge. But not such a substantial amount that we would lose our habitat and livelihood down here.”
The redirection of water hasn’t been determined yet.
The concern for the Osprey that Doug observes on his land and other wildlife is what keeps Doug motivated to document the animals thriving in their adopted habitat.
“I happen to take pictures of them to document that vast diversity of birds,” Doug said. “I’m chronicling that we have all this diverse wildlife directly because we have irrigation water here.”
Doug is on a mission to ensure that the people, land and wildlife who depend irrigation water are able to continue to do so for generations to come.
Want to learn more?
Check out Doug’s photography and share his work.
Visit Phillips Farms web site
For more detail see Water Education Foundation