California’s immigrant communities have long been among the leading proponents of state and local measures to protect and safeguard the environment. But in the South Asian community, many residents have also begun to take matters into their own hands.

From the rural farmlands of the Central Valley to the high-tech heart of suburban Silicon Valley, Indian Americans have begun to embrace conservation strategies that can help better prepare them and the watersheds they depend on for the expected challenges of climate change.

At the height of the last drought, Yuba County farmer Sarbdeep Atwal switched irrigation methods, adopting more efficient techniques to water his 1,200 acres of fruit and nut trees. But as the drought’s impact on the state’s groundwater supplies became more apparent, Atwal realized he may have to take additional action.

“During the drought we switched to … drip and micro jet irrigation to conserve water,” says Atwal, who owns Heer Atwal Orchards, located in Yuba County, about an hour north of Sacramento.

Sardeep Atwal with family

The shift was a costly but necessary move, he notes. Yet while the new irrigation methods were “more efficient for watering trees,” they did little to replenish dwindling aquifers.

Groundwater accounts for close to 40 percent of California water supplies in a given year, according to the California Department of Water Resources, and close to half of water supplies during periods of drought.

California farmers like Atwal came under intense scrutiny for drawing heavily on local aquifers to water their crops during the last drought. According to one report farmers “extracted twice as much water from the state’s aquifers as the total storage capacity of the state’s dams and man-made lakes.”

Atwal is a third generation farmer and member of the Yuba Sutter Farm Bureau Board of Directors.

Yuba is home to the largest Punjabi community outside of India. According to the Punjabi American Heritage Society, Punjabi farmers account for 95 percent of peach farming, 60 percent of prune farming, and 20 percent of almond and walnut farming in California. They also contribute 20 percent of grape cultivation in the San Joaquin valley.  

Farmers like Atwal are looking at flood irrigation, a method that researchers at the University of California Davis say could help sustain groundwater levels. Flood irrigation involves drenching fields with harvested rainwater during wet periods. Water over the flooded fields eventually permeates the soil and filters through to the underlying aquifers.

It’s an approach Atwal describes as “counter intuitive,” given the likelihood of future droughts. But according to researchers, harvesting rainwater in wet years to flood local fields holds the potential to help refill empty aquifers and prepare for expected dry years.

“In a wet year, we can have 15 million acre feet of flood flows in the winter season that are not used,” explains University of California Davis Professor Helen Dahlke in a video demonstrating how flood irrigation works. “They are just flowing out to the ocean. That could be designated for groundwater recharge.”

Dahlke is leading the research into flood irrigation, looking at its potential impact on groundwater supplies and any potential harm to crops, including any damage done by frozen roots in winter time. Her team is testing a variety of different crops, including many grown on Atwal’s farm.

University of California Davis Professor Helen Dahlke

Paul Basi 

Still, despite its advantages, Yuba farmer and Sutter county Planning Commissioner Paul Basi says a lot of farmers in the area are still using micro irrigation. “I have yet to find a farmer who is saving rainwater,” he adds.

Basi is adamant that more needs to be done. “We need to increase the number of reservoirs, and we need to add new methods of saving and recycling water,” he said. Capturing and storing rainwater, he notes, has to be part of the solution.

Harvesting Rain at Home

It isn’t only farmers who have had to adjust to California’s prolonged droughts.

“We laid our lawn in 2002. At that time we chose to go with California natives and rocks to minimize the amount of water we would use,” say Anita and Arjun Bhagat,  longtime residents of Los Altos, about an hour south of San Francisco in Silicon Valley. “Two years ago we went a step further. We enlarged our hardscape area and shrank our lawn area by 1500 sq. ft.”

They add, “Since the last drought the residents know that though this year we have had rain, they have to prepare for more drought.”

Anita & Arjun Bhagat’s backyard in Los Altos

The couple added that many of their friends and neighbors are making similar changes to their homes. “We all want to be more water efficient,” says Anita.

Max Gomberg is climate and conservation manager for the State Water Resources Control Board, which determines water allocation and quality needs around the state. He says the price of water has increased at six times the rate of inflation across the state. Cities such as Mountain View, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale increased their rates by 9.9 percent, 19 percent and 25 percent, respectively, with Mountain View’s average monthly water bill costing more than $100.

Noona and Mohan Giridharadas of Saratoga say they have worked on getting their water bill down by making changes to their yard space.

“We have synthetic grass in our front yard,” says Noona Giridharadas. “Now we have a realistic looking green grass lawn that needs no water. Our water bill has gone down by $50 a month.”

Growing Demand Among S. Asians

Babak Tondre is a designer with Dig Co-op, an Oakland-based, worker-owned design firm specializing green infrastructure for Bay Area homes.

“We’ve been getting a lot of requests from South Asian homeowners,” says Tondre. “Sometimes the price is out of their budget but there seems to be a great deal of desire to learn about rainwater harvesting. There is an upsurge in interest especially in the Peninsula.”

Tondre says greywater from a home’s showers, bathrooms, and laundry can direct 30,000 gallons of water annually from the house to the yard.

Image:Khalifeh & Associates, Los Angeles

In addition, a home with a 1,500-square-foot roof is capable of collecting 10,000 gallons of water in an area that gets 12 inches of rain a year. San Jose, for example, averages 15 inches of rain in a typical year, while Walnut Creek gets 23 inches. During a heavy storm, each downpour on a house can deliver 12 gallons of rainwater a minute to the sewer system. 

But Tondre says unlike solar installations, the state does not provide as many incentives for homeowners to install rain capture features.

A bill on the June ballot could change that however. Proposition 72 if passed would ensure that any rain capture installations put on homes after January 1st, 2019 would not be taxed as new construction.

The average spent on rainwater installations is around $20,000.

Still, despite the cost homeowners like Giridharadas say with climate change and the increased likelihood of more severe droughts, it’s a critical step.

“Frankly we had no choice but to go this route,” Noona says. “We are going to have another drought that is for sure. It is not as if we are going to have water forever.”

Ritu Marwah wrote this story as part of UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) 2018 Watershed Fellowship.

Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author ✍️ and a recognized Bay Area leader in the field of 🏛 art and literature. She won the 2023 Ethnic Media Services award for outstanding international reporting;...