California Forum

Another View: Half-truths disguise true drought impacts

Paul Wenger
Paul Wenger

The commentary “Thirsty farmers must wise up over water use” (Viewpoints, March 13) was rife with half-truths that distort the real situation facing California farmers.

Half-truth: California farms earned record revenue in 2014. You don’t have to be an economist to know that revenue is only half the story. Farm production costs rose faster than revenues did. The California Department of Food and Agriculture report on agricultural revenues also showed that net farm income in the state dropped by 11 percent in 2014.

So, the full truth is that the farm economy has suffered during the drought – but that doesn’t fit a polemicist’s narrative of wealthy farmers prospering while urban Californians have to let their lawns go brown.

Half-truth: California farmers use water to grow “low-value” crops. Again, you don’t need to be an economist to know that different products operate on different markets. Professional athletes and entertainers earn considerably more than kindergarten teachers. Would we classify kindergarten teachers as a “low-value occupation” and urge the state to direct valuable resources toward training more actors? Of course not. Teachers have value beyond their salary level.

The full truth is that every crop grown in California has high value to the customers who buy it and the farmers who grow it.

Half-truth: Via exports of hay and other crops, California is essentially exporting water to other nations.

The full truth is that California imports significant amounts of water in the form of products of all sorts from other states and nations. As Jay Lund of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences wrote a couple of years ago, “Those concerned should take comfort with California’s major imports of virtual water.”

Half-truth: The typical California household pays far more for water than farmers do. Again, we’re talking about different products entirely. Water for household use must be treated, pressurized and made available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and often has to be moved farther from the source to the customer.

Of course it’s more expensive than agricultural water, which often moves less distance via gravity flow, is not treated and is the first supply to be interrupted in times of shortage.

There’s plenty of room for discussion about water use in California, but readers deserve an honest discussion.

Paul Wenger is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He grows almonds and walnuts near Modesto. Contact him at pwenger@cfbf.com.

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