LOS ANGELES, California: Since early May, Charlie Hamilton has not irrigated his vineyards with water from the Sacramento River, despite it flowing just yards from his crops, amidst a punishing drought.
The San Joaquin River is also close by, but water from the two rivers, central arms of California's water system, have become too salty to use in some locations.
In dry winters, less fresh water flows down from the mountains into the Sacramento River, the state's largest, allowing salt water from the Pacific Ocean to push farther into the state's main water hub, known as the "Delta."
Described by scientists as part of the U.S. West's driest period in 1,200 years, the drought, along with rising sea levels, are exposing the fragility of that system, forcing California's water managers, cities and farmers to look for new ways to stabilize their supplies of fresh water.
Planners and farmers are trying to fix the issue of saltwater intrusion with a desalination plant, an artificial rock barrier and groundwater pumps, but those unable to solve the problem can only hope that things will change.
"We just try to hang on and hope the water quality gets better," said Bobby Costa, a farmer who has seen his cucumber yields fall by 25 percent this year compared to wetter years, as quoted by the Associated Press.
In 2021, the state hauled 112,000 tons of rock and stacked it 30 feet deep in a key Delta river to stop salt water from getting too close to its water pumps.
The state has since asked the federal government for permission to build two more barriers further north if the drought worsens, arguing it will be necessary to protect water supplies.
But local advocates stressed this would just be another solution that will leave farmers, fish and people who rely on Delta water high and dry.
While the barrier protects the pumps, it does little to help some interests within the Delta who rely on fresh water before it heads south.
Meanwhile in Antioch, a city of 115,000 people, officials are investing in desalination, after the situation worsened in 2021 to the point where the city could not use water from the river.
John Samuelson, city engineer and director of public works, said the plant will be the state's first inland desalination plant to process brackish surface water.
Other Bay Area cities considering their own options for stabilizing their water supplies are reaching out to Antioch to learn more about its plans, he added.
"We just know that this problem is going to continue to get worse in the future. We want to make sure that we are being forward thinking and solving the problem today," Samuelson said, as reported by the Associated Press.