Opinion — Time to tap into water-wise farmers’ well of ideas

Circle of Blue covered the Pacific Institute’s newest report on water agricultural conservation last week. The report, More with Less: Agriculture Water Conservation and Efficiency in California, generated controversy throughout the agricultural sector in southern California. For example, Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), said the report “does not offer practical approaches to achieve increased water use efficiency. Further, the report sidesteps the most pressing issue before us — how to improve the sustainability of our water supply infrastructure so it can work for the environment as well as our economy.” In response, the Pacific Institute offered this open letter to critics (a version of this letter appeared in the October 02, 2008 edition of the Modest Bee):

At the most recent California State Board of Food and Agriculture meeting, Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura stated that due to climate change and changes in the timing and reliability of water supply, “doing nothing is not an option.” We think everyone can agree on this basic point, and in moving forward, California needs to have an open and honest discussion about the range of options to face the crisis in the Delta and throughout the state.
Independent of what we might want, we believe it very likely that there will continue to be constraints on water available to all users, including agriculture. As this drought season ends, the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the National Weather Service’s Climate PredictionCenter are forecasting a third dry winter in a row for California. If this is the case, then what do we do? There are two choices: ignore the ongoing water reductions and let them randomly destroy farms and communities, or plan for how the agricultural sector is going to manage changes in water availability and reliability and improve the productivity with the water that is available. We prefer the second approach, and our analysis,“More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California – A Special Focus on the Delta,” explores how we can maintain a healthy and profitable agricultural sector into the future. We started by examining the many farmer-initiated innovations that have already led to greater water-use efficiency and then explored the potential water savings associated with applying these water conservation and efficiency improvements at a broader scale.
There is a basic question here: is there any potential for the agricultural sector to use water more efficiently? Many farmers have responded with a resounding “yes.” President of the San Joaquin River Water Authority, James O’Banion, wrote in letter to the Pacific Institute (dated 9/15/08) that “there may be some additional gains [in efficiency] in some of these areas…” and yesterday Dan Nelson of the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority stated that it was important to have this discussion about water conservation and efficiency. Yet there are those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand or attack us based on specious arguments and knee-jerk paranoia. Unfortunately, this does not help farmers and does not deal with the crisis at hand.
If even a small amount of water could be saved, or used more efficiently, then it is worth having a discussion about how to provide the appropriate incentives to achieve these savings. A large portion of our report is devoted to suggesting ways to overcome the financial, legal, and institutional barriers that currently discourage better use of our available water resources. For instance, we suggest providing rebates to farmers for more efficient irrigation equipment, and property tax exemptions for on-farm improvements that reduce water use. We also suggest that the state provide more funding for educational and technical outreach programs like agricultural extension services.
There have been some profound misrepresentations of our report that are irresponsible and counter-productive. We encourage every member of the agricultural community to read the report for themselves. It has been claimed that we encourage land fallowing even though we explicitly excluded fallowing from the water conservation and efficiency improvements that we explore in our study. Fallowing lands would cut food production – that’s why we excluded it from our assessment, which focused on improving efficiency of water use while maintaining agricultural production. We do compare the water savings from fallowing with efficiency improvements that would maintain or improve productivity to show that the water savings from efficiency improvements are as great or greater than those achieved from fallowing. Fallowing is neither a scenario nor a recommendation of our study. Ironically, pursuing the efficiency improvements that we do recommend could reduce the pressure to fallow.
Finally, the assumption that our agenda is to grab water for the environment is particularly sad and revealing. It seems that some in the agricultural community don’t know who their friends are – if California is going to thrive in the next few decades, it will only be those farmers who are efficient, innovative, and thoughtful. Fortunately, our analysis shows that many already are, and many more could be. Let’s remove the barriers in their way and help accelerate their progress.
Peter Gleick, Heather Cooley, and Juliet Christian-Smith, Ph.D.
Pacific Institute
654 13th St., Preservation Park
Oakland, CA 94612
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