California’s severe drought is a crucial opportunity for Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Water Resources Control Board to realign and ensure California’s agricultural system is in harmony with our water supply.
California has long promised more water than it can actually deliver; as such, poor decisions have been made about irrigating farmland that we simply do not have the water to support. These operations are now consuming vast amounts of groundwater at alarming rates. A recent NASA study found that in the last three years the state has lost nearly 12 million acre-feet of groundwater – enough water to supply all of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco for 12 years. Most of the depletion was in the Central Valley.
Brown’s executive order last week to reduce water use in California emphasizes small-scale solutions to a large-scale problem. The order mostly applies to residential and urban water use that accounts for less than 15 percent of the state’s total water budget. By contrast, agriculture consumes a hefty 80 percent of water used by people; yet Brown’s mandates place little burden – and no new restrictions – on agriculture.
In order to honestly address our continued water crisis, Brown needs to take bold actions to curtail unreasonable agricultural water uses to save our groundwater – what amounts to California’s water savings account – and to bring our agriculture in balance with our real water budget.
A good place to start is the recently established almond empire, which in the last five years, has doubled on the dry west side of the Central Valley. Historically, farmers have produced almonds sustainably in wetter parts of eastern and northern California, but rising global demand has spurred growers to plant almond and pistachio trees galore on the dry and salty soils of the west side.
The Westlands Water District, the largest irrigation district in California and home to rampant almond production, has pumped more than 1 million acre-feet of groundwater in the past two years – more water than Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco combined use in a year.
Not only is the west side dry, much of its soil is contaminated with selenium, demanding excessive water to flush it out in order to make the land arable. The selenium-filled runoff is a major environmental problem that has harmed migrating birds and is choking the San Joaquin River with excessive salt. An estimated four times as much water is required to grow an orchard of almonds on the west side as is needed for an almond orchard in Northern California.
In addition to overpumping groundwater, these operations divert fresh water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, taking a toll on fish populations, including salmon, which are edging toward the brink of extinction. In the past decade, the majority of the water exported from the Delta has gone to irrigate west side agriculture – not Southern California. And most of the nuts grown there don’t feed Californians: the vast majority are exported overseas to markets such as China. Indeed, the almond boom has been a windfall for a handful of corporate farms, including for Paramount Farms, owned by billionaire Stewart Resnick, one of the largest growers and packers of almonds and pistachios in the world.
In his landmark book “Cadillac Desert,” author Marc Reisner documented the controversy over putting the west side into production, given its dry climate and salty soils. This severe drought, with no end in sight, demands that we correct this mistake.
Brown and the State Water Resources Control Board must exercise their constitutional authority to regulate all of the state’s waters, including groundwater, under Article 10 of the California Constitution, which mandates that “waste and unreasonable use be prevented.” In the short term, the governor should mandate sensible limits on groundwater pumping. In the long term, it’s time to retire and stop the irrigation of selenium-laced soils on the west side. The state, working with the Bureau of Reclamation, should begin a settlement process that ensures farmers who were given false hope of water be fairly compensated for their losses.
Finally, Brown and the water board must balance all of the state’s water rights. By annually overpromising our water based upon a grossly inflated estimate of the amount of water nature can provide, the state has overstretched our water supply and done a disservice to farmers who overplant crops based on unrealistic assumptions about water.
It will take courage for the governor to rein in these agricultural interests. Resnick, owner of Paramount Farms, is not only the largest grower and packer of almonds and pistachios, he is one of the biggest individual contributors to all major politicians in California, including Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
But being governor isn’t easy, and Californians elected Brown to stand up in times that call for bold leadership. It’s difficult to imagine a time more urgent than now.
Adam Scow is California director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit advocacy organization.