California Forum

Conserving water now becomes a shared responsibility

Associated Press file

Forty years ago, I began research on a book about California’s Great Central Valley. The scientists, citizens and scholars I interviewed stressed a number of developing but avoidable environmental problems: desertification, salinization, sinking water table, as well as soil subsidence and attendant compaction. The Chico-based historian W.H. Hutchinson seemed to speak for nearly all when he said, “We have to stop pretending we’re frontiersmen dealing with unlimited water. There’re too damned many of us, and there’s too damned little of it.”

Another of the experts interviewed, Garrison Sposito of UC Berkeley, pointed out that three crops – cotton, alfalfa and pasturage for beef – consumed a great deal of the water then allotted to agriculture. Today, the thirst of those three pales next to broccoli (5.4 gallons per head), lettuce (3.5 gallons per head), and strawberries (0.4 gallons per berry), crops grown mostly on coastal shelves and inland valleys.

In the San Joaquin Valley, what used to be called specialty crops have become guzzlers of choice: walnuts (a whopping 4.9 gallons per nut), almonds (1.1 gallons), and pistachios (0.75 gallons). Also, wine grapes grown by farmers and increasingly by hobbyists seem to sprout everywhere at 0.3 gallons per grape.

Meanwhile, in Palm Springs the landscaped gardens and golf courses thrive, and in Hillsborough the manicured lawns are lush, but just outside Pixley, tired brown hands fill soda-pop bottles at an anemic tap, then carry them home because that is the only source of drinking water. Among the big users, especially, the notion of sharing water is resisted.

Recently in the City Journal, agribusiness spokesman Victor Davis Hanson scorned environmentalists’ efforts to restore “pet salmon” to the San Joaquin River, arguing that activists hope “to claim possession of the water in the ground once they’ve exhausted what was above it.” Since agribusiness uses approximately 80 percent of all the state’s water used by humans, evidence about who exactly “exhausted” what doesn’t seem to point at the Sierra Club or Ducks Unlimited. How about those thirsty walnuts? The major beneficiary of California’s elaborate water-transfer system has, of course, been agribusiness.

What some call the “agristocracy” shows little concern for the ecosystem represented by salmon and shad and smelt and bass, or for the culture and economy tied to commercial and recreational fishing (a $1.5 billion sector of the state’s economy), nor do they explain why fishing families must go belly up so that more pistachios can be planted.

Agriculture certainly deserves considerable irrigation, but not at the cost of destroying everyone else’s interests. Water to drink should come before water to pile up profits. And water to enhance quality of life – streams, lakes, groundwater – needs to have a stake, too. Timothy Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies asserts that healthy fish population and a reliable water supply aren’t incompatible.

Industrial farming already enjoys great privileges in our naturally dry state: it is the primary beneficiary of the world’s greatest agricultural water-delivery system – when there’s water to deliver. In return, agribusiness is one of California’s economic engines, producing abundantly food, jobs and money. It has also contributed to problems such as environmental degradation and selective poverty. It can probably spare some surface water and become more prudent in its own use of groundwater, as many growers already have. The frontier notion of unregulated pumping of groundwater has lasted well past its usefulness.

Meanwhile, an area at the foot of the Diablo Range that in my youth was called the Westside Desert has been pumped green in the last 50 or so years. For now the pump is off and signs reading “Congress-created dust bowl” and “Food grows where water flows” decorate some fields. They tell part of the story, since imported water – approved by Congress – and groundwater originally created the irrigated farming there that is now enduring reduced or eliminated water transfers. Another Westside sign reads, “65% cut 2008, 40% cut 2009, 50% cut 2010,” revealing inadvertently how much water they have previously been given by the government. With nearly everyone sucking the public teat, compromise should be possible.

Hanson, meanwhile, suggests that if the state doesn’t build more water infrastructure, then officials must “halve California’s population, or shut down the 5 million acres of irrigated crops on the Central Valley’s west side, or cut back municipal water usage in a way never before done in the United States.”

Curiously, he doesn’t mention other reasonable solutions such as limiting especially thirsty crops, or more rotational fallowing of fields, or – on the driest areas – experimenting with crops and techniques grown in other deserts. He’s certainly correct that crop yields would suffer and that, perhaps, draconian rules like one-bathroom-per-household might be enforced.

Many Californians seem to accept there is a problem, but most also seem to prefer that others do without in order to preserve the comfortable existing order – for farmers, for golfers, for fishers, etc. That order probably won’t be preserved intact this time. Protecting the soil and its ecosystem is more important than guarding profits or homeowners’ regulations. Valley growers have been remarkably inventing the clamshell dredge, peach defuzzers, tree shakers, olive pitters, etc. Without water, those devices are useless.

This is a land of recurring droughts, and now is a time to examine our responses to it. Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, says bluntly that Californians should water enough to save their trees, but let their lawns go. Easier said than done.

A battle of changing images is at play, and in towns and cities the desire for green yards to imitate the estates of Europe was long ago commercially promoted. Now, many Californians are trapped by it. Green lawns and lush landscaping represent to some a sign of success – as do houses with multiple bathrooms.

Meanwhile, aquifers are being drained at a dangerous rate, pulling us into unknown territory. Open land is as a result sinking, and pore space is compacting so that aquifers cannot later be fully recharged. This is not an indictment against agribusiness or against native salmon or against residents of Fresno or Bakersfield, who out of habit sneak out to wash their sidewalks.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently revealed new-found pragmatism when he said, “A new house with a bunch of toilets and showers takes water.” So does an arid state with a list of assumed damp entitlements. Perhaps it’s at last time for all sectors and regions to sacrifice proportionately, even the agristocracy and the aristocracy.

Environmentalists are not the enemy. They, like farmers, want to use available water efficiently but with a slightly different plan for allocation. Return some to natural ecosystems, they urge, instead of sending all to industrial farming. No rational environmentalist wants to shut down California agriculture – they eat, too, after all. Many do, however, want to limit Big Ag slightly, so that nature and humans might share things like living rivers and natural forests.

We should be able to compromise with existing possibilities. Of course, Hanson is absolutely correct when he urges “prudent expansion of the state’s water infrastructure,” but agreeing on what constitutes “prudent” will require negotiations. If Californians in general accept the need to cut water use, so can businesses based here. Certainly, Brown’s recent order requiring water agencies to cut allocations by 25 percent of their 2013 level, if enforced, will help. Human nature being what it is, though, he’d better figure out a slick way to explain why agribusiness or any other sector is exempted.

Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.” Most of his books are set in the Central Valley. He was born in Bakersfield and grew up in Oildale.