Dan Morain

Op Images: Why almond orchards are sprouting in Solano County

Sprinklers soak a new almond orchard between Davis and Dixon south of Interstate 80.
Sprinklers soak a new almond orchard between Davis and Dixon south of Interstate 80. dmorain@sacbee.com

In the week when Gov. Jerry Brown decreed that we who live in cities and suburbs cut water use by 25 percent, sprinklers soaked a newly planted almond orchard south of Interstate 80 between Davis and Dixon.

I assume other motorists stuck in slow traffic had a similar thought: What’s up with that? As I learned, this farmer’s practice is a complicated matter, one that involves supply, demand, outside investment and water supply.

The family that owns this particular orchard is known to every school kid in the area. The Cooley clan is proprietor of Cool Patch Pumpkins and carves the intricate corn maze outside Dixon. The Cooleys have been farming in Solano County since the 1950s, or as Mark Cooley said, they’re newcomers.

“Dynamics have changed,” he told me the other day.

When he was a kid, his family had an almond orchard. The nuts had little value then, so the Cooleys pulled out the trees and focused on annual crops, including tomatoes for which they could use underground drip irrigation. Now, demand for almonds is voracious, and tomato fields are giving way to orchards.

“All the good ground is being taken up by trees,” Cooley said.

Cooley is exchanging old sprinklers for more efficient micro-sprinklers in his orchards. But it’s not cheap, $1,500 an acre, though state and federal grants defray some of the cost.

Adding to the pressure to switch to high-value almonds, Solano County land prices are rising. Investors from other parts of the state are looking to Solano County, where the soil is good and the water supply is secure, as state and federal water deliveries dwindle in other agricultural regions in Year Four of the drought.

“It is due to the water. ... We have a better situation than they do,” he said.

The Solano Irrigation District is not tied to federal or state water projects, thanks to its location and foresight. Decades ago, the district, Vacaville and few other towns bought rights to Lake Berryessa water. The district also has ground water. All this means annual crops are giving way to permanent crops.

“That’s where the money is being made,” Solano Irrigation District general manager Cary Keaten said. “It’s our business to supply water. It’s their business to maximize their profit. At this point, we’re able to meet the demand.”

In other words, expect to see more trees and sprinklers when you’re stuck in traffic on I-80. Unlike some of the farms to the south, however, at least Solano Irrigation District has a supply of water.