I sat silently for many minutes with the phone still in my hand, trying to absorb what I had just heard from two trusted sources.
It’s not often that your day includes a moment when the world shifts.
Seven weeks ago, that moment was learning that agriculture in the state might die.
How can it be, I asked myself, that the drought is so bad and planning so nonexistent that there are serious thoughts of eliminating all surface water for agriculture in the state? I was numb.
Thanks to some heaven-sent storms and fantastic water managers, the situation improved every week. We went from no water to some water, and then to a bit more. When the final crop acreage is written in farmers’ notebooks this year, it will be a tough year – but not a tragic one.
It is important to realize how close to the edge we came and be clear about what we must do to ensure we do not find ourselves in the same situation in the next dry stretch.
The first lesson is that we can’t conserve our way out of multiple-year droughts. While conservation has proven to be effective, as seen in the impressive conservation in the Los Angeles basin and in agriculture, it is in the final analysis a singular tool.
Most of the people I talk to, both urban and rural, agree – we need more storage. In the Sacramento Valley, that means Sites Reservoir. This off-stream lake, worked on at the local and state level for three decades, has great environmental credentials and will provide not only more water but also allow greater flexibility to use existing water more effectively. Water stored during the rainy season will be used for the Delta, urban uses and also for agriculture.
At the same time, we need to continue to invest in conservation on our farms and in our cities. It is proven to work and can help during the acute dry years.
The second lesson was that water has multiple benefits that need to be clearly understood. In water discussions, urban water, agricultural water and environmental water are often cited as the three buckets we fight over. Water for one use is seen as exclusive of others. This is just not the case in the Sacramento Valley and in many other agricultural regions.
The best example came to me by way of a Saturday phone call. A rice farmer in Maxwell called to say he had just passed a winter-flooded rice field with more snow geese than he had ever seen. He estimated 200,000.
Water used on rice fields to grow the crop provided the leftover grain. Winter flooding decomposed the rice straw and allowed a flush of midges and other small insects to hatch. The result was one of the highest concentrations of geese a generation of farmers can remember.
This is one of the many examples of water used from one bucket to the benefit another.
The third lesson is one of leadership. Without taking up the old saw of how long it has been since a major water project was completed, let’s be clear – moving forward, new solutions must be found. Solutions that move beyond positions and rhetoric. In all honesty, that goes for all sides in the argument – agriculture, environmental organizations and urban interests.
It will take people turning over their buckets and sitting down to find long-term solutions to drought and agreeing that sacrificing one segment of our community is not a solution. Had the spigot been turned off to agriculture, the effect on the Sacramento Valley landscape would have been devastating. We are an interconnected region: rural and urban, agriculture and environment. We are a region whose landscape is still intact with water tying people, farms and the environment together. Eliminate one and we have lost our identity.
In fact, cutting off all surface water to agriculture – or the environment, for that matter – is a reaction to a set of circumstances.
Now is the time to shift from reaction to taking all of the steps we can to ensure that next time dry year stacks on top of dry year we don’t contemplate selling one of our children to pay the past-due bills.
Tim Johnson is president and CEO of the California Rice Commission.