California farm exports help agriculture, but at what cost?


I’ve been told it’s impolite to criticize farmers with your mouth full, and I agree. Food production is one of the most important, yet under-appreciated, professions. However, not all farming is created equal.

In California, water is a public trust resource, meaning it belongs to the people of the state. Water agencies are granted water rights, but the state can determine which beneficial uses have priority.

While it could be argued that food grown in California for Californians is a beneficial use of our water, it’s harder to make that case for crops exported overseas for the benefit of a few farmers – often corporations – at the expense of other water needs.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture reports that in 2015, California exported 26 percent of its agricultural production by volume, accounting for $20.69 billion in value.

The state should take a serious look at how our water is allocated. Last year, 70 percent of Bay Area voters elected to tax themselves to pay for wetland restoration around San Francisco Bay, suggesting the health of the estuary is of great importance to the communities that ring its shore.

Tragically, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is slowly dying. Starved of freshwater inflow from Central Valley rivers, the size and location of the salinity mixing zone has shifted upstream into the Delta, affecting everything from plankton to marine mammals.

Changes in the chemistry of the Delta have enabled cyanobacteria to thrive, producing neurotoxins that can make people sick and kill pets and wildlife.

Saltwater intrusion also threatens drinking water quality for two-thirds of Californians who rely on the Delta for a portion of their drinking water.

Upstream of the Delta, low river flows have contributed to the collapse of the salmon fishery. In 2008 and 2009, the salmon population was so low that the commercial fishing season had to be canceled, costing 2,200 jobs and $255 million in annual revenue.

Salmon are keystone species, transporting tremendous amounts of nutrients from the ocean to upland habitats where they fuel the food web. The entire salmon-based ecosystem is now at risk.

To protect fish and wildlife, the State Water Resources Control Board recently proposed increasing unimpaired flows by a modest amount in the lower San Joaquin River and its three major tributaries, the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. Irrigation district officials and other water purveyors met this proposal with fierce opposition.

Agriculture generates 2 percent of California’s economic productivity, but accounts for 80 percent of our water consumption. We all need food, and should appreciate the farmers who put it on our plates, but we don’t have enough water to continually expand acreage for export crops.

In recent years, thousands of acres used for grazing and seasonal crops that could be fallowed in dry years have been converted to perennial crops, such as nuts and grapes, that require water every year. Two-thirds of the almonds grown in California are exported.

The Legislature should adopt a fee on water used to grow export crops, and invest the revenue on water-efficient irrigation practices and groundwater recharge to make more water available for environmental purposes.

Such investments would help us prepare for future droughts, improve the health of our rivers, and maintain a vibrant and sustainable agricultural economy. It’s simply not fair that crop exporters privatize the gains from using a public trust resource while socializing the losses.

Peter Drekmeier serves as Policy Director for the Tuolumne River Trust,