Viewpoints

Many California farms need an upgraded water delivery system

Tech-savvy farmers are using modernized tools like GPS, drip irrigation and soil moisture sensors to maximize their water efficiency and best manage their crops.
Tech-savvy farmers are using modernized tools like GPS, drip irrigation and soil moisture sensors to maximize their water efficiency and best manage their crops. Sacramento Bee file

California is home to many of the world’s most advanced and innovative technology companies. Yet, while Silicon Valley and up-and-coming Silicon Beach are cutting-edge, another critical component of California’s economy – agriculture – is hobbled by outdated systems, particularly when it comes to how water is delivered and used.

Nearly a century ago, California’s engineers achieved an astonishing accomplishment: They irrigated the arid Central Valley. This feat required capturing, storing and moving water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack hundreds of miles through a system of ditches and canals. As a result, California now grows half of the fruits and vegetables we eat in this country.

But the harsh realities of climate change, a growing population and threatened ecosystems mean it’s time for a 21st-century upgrade for California water.

Tech-savvy farmers are ready to meet these challenges using modernized tools like GPS, drip irrigation and soil moisture sensors to maximize their water efficiency and best manage their crops. But they can’t truly take advantage of these technological advances when the way they receive water is stuck in the 1900s. Many of them can’t turn a faucet to get their water on demand the way we do at home.

Right now, more than 5,300 farms – 12 percent of irrigated farms – in California receive water according to a fixed, rotational schedule. In other words, water is delivered to a farm on a certain date regardless of whether or not the crops actually need that water.

If water was delivered to your home only one day every two weeks, would you conserve and only take as much as you need? Or would you fill up every single bathtub, bucket and container you could find? You’d probably water your lawn, if you have one, nonstop to keep the grass from dying before the next water delivery in two weeks.

And many farmers do the same.

Instead of jeopardizing a year’s worth of crops – and income – these farmers irrigate their fields when water is available and not necessarily when their crops need water. Or, increasingly, farmers are digging their own groundwater wells, which can provide a more reliable supply of water on demand. However, as we have seen firsthand during the drought, excessive groundwater pumping is unsustainable and has led to such a severe depletion of our underground aquifers that those sources of water may never recover.

Updating our agricultural water systems to allow for more flexible deliveries and shifting to more efficient irrigation methods has the potential to help save 4.5 million to 6 million acre-feet of water each year – about the same amount of water that 22 million to 30 million Californians use every year.

While modernizing our water delivery infrastructure can require substantial investments, irrigation districts that have made these improvements and their farmers have reaped many benefits. Take for example, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which installed a fully pressurized delivery system to serve its Division 9 area in 2012. The new system provides water on demand, which has enabled farmers to upgrade to more efficient irrigation methods and precisely time when and how they water their crops. It’s resulted in farmers seeing up to a 30 percent increase in crop yields while also reducing water use by 30 percent, and has helped replenish groundwater. So investing in modern infrastructure is a win-win for farms, the environment, California’s economy and our state as a whole.

The last several years of drought have reminded us that California consistently uses more water than is made available by nature. To make truly meaningful progress toward a sustainable water future, the largest water user in California – agriculture – must be a part of the solution.

It’s time to adopt policies and make investments that bring our water delivery systems into the 21st century. It’s time to modernize, pressurize and pipe water so that farmers can get water when their crops most need it.

Ben Chou is a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council working on agricultural water issues. He can be contacted at nrdcinfo@nrdc.org.

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