California farms are thirsty and in danger

Gino Celli checks the moisture of land just planted with corn seed near Stockton in May 2015.
Gino Celli checks the moisture of land just planted with corn seed near Stockton in May 2015. Associated Press file

For generations now, California farmers have fed America and the world. As a third-generation California farmer, my family is proud of the produce we have helped put on the table.

But that legacy of plenty could be in jeopardy for the next generation. A new UC Berkeley report commissioned by the Southern California Water Committee concludes that for decades, environmental regulations have been severely limiting the amount of water available for agriculture.

Overregulation is pushing us toward perhaps the greatest water loss ever in California – an average of 1.3 million acre-feet of water each year. That’s enough to irrigate 400,000 acres of farmland, or sustain more than 10 million Southern California residents for a year.

No matter the weather, the state’s current water system cannot capture and store enough water when it’s available – water that could be used to balance residential use, environmental practices and food production.

If this trend is allowed to continue, we will see a significant decrease in available farmland, an increase in food prices and an even tougher future for family farmers.

The report also confirms that California’s farmworkers are being marginalized in the state’s water debate. They have lost $900 million in wages since 2000 and could lose another $4 billion in wages over the next three decades.

While farmers and farmworkers are the first to feel the impact, others who rely on agriculture to make ends meet also will feel the pinch, including food processors, truck drivers and warehouse workers.

Consumers are likely to feel these policies, too, in their wallets as well as their stomachs. Our food supply will have to change because the water cuts predicted by the report could result in 195,000 acres of farmland fallowed each year for the next 30 years. The decrease in readily available food will force a choice between eating less of what we’re used to, or paying more. Poor families would no doubt be hardest hit, further limiting their access to fresh, wholesome and healthy foods.

As California’s prime farmland thirsts for water, now is the time to demand answers to the difficult questions. How will we keep affordable foods on the table? Will California be forced to import fruits and vegetables from other countries that do not follow our safety standards?

We need for a comprehensive solution to our water challenges. We cannot rely on conservation alone to ensure thriving farms and plentiful, healthy food. Instead, we need an expansive and balanced solution to ensure a clean and reliable water source for our farms – and for all Californians.

A.G. Kawamura served as California secretary of agriculture from 2003 to 2010. He can be contacted at