Soapbox

California should stretch urban supplies before cutting water for farms

Frank Gehrke, left, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, points to a mark on a measuring pole that was the previous lowest snowpack level as Gov. Jerry Brown and Mark Cowin, right, director of the Department of Water Resources, look on at a news conference last week where Brown announced an executive order requiring cities to reduce water usage 25 percent compared with 2013.
Frank Gehrke, left, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, points to a mark on a measuring pole that was the previous lowest snowpack level as Gov. Jerry Brown and Mark Cowin, right, director of the Department of Water Resources, look on at a news conference last week where Brown announced an executive order requiring cities to reduce water usage 25 percent compared with 2013. The Associated Press

A 25 percent cutback in urban water use – as Gov. Jerry Brown imposed last week – is less a hardship on California residents than an adjustment to a new reality.

Droughts like the one gripping California now are inevitable, though climate change makes their frequency and severity unpredictable. We need to change the way we use water, especially outdoors, to cope now and into the future. Simple steps, such as not overwatering lawns, will go a long way. Replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping will go even further.

Some question why the mandated water reductions did not extend to agriculture, which uses a larger share of the state’s developed water supply than homes and businesses.

Millions of acre-feet of surface water will not go to farms this year. The roughly half-million acres of farmland not planted last year (of roughly 9 million irrigated acres in the state) will likely expand this year. The state’s two biggest water projects already have cut deliveries by between 50 percent and 100 percent.

Thousands of other farmers with long-standing water rights and good supplies even in dry years are on notice from the State Water Resources Control Board that water may be left in streams and rivers to meet the most basic needs for people and native fish – and that they should think hard before planting crops in this fourth year of drought.

If this drought deepens so that it becomes difficult to provide water for essential human needs, the state ultimately could use its authority to further limit agricultural water use. But we should stretch urban supplies as far as possible before we take that drastic action.

Agriculture is the economic engine of rural California, and the entire state enjoys the variety of safe, nutritious food that California farmers produce. There are many gallons of water, applied by a farmer, behind each of our meals.

Some argue that California agriculture uses too much water to grow crops for export such as almonds and pistachios, and suggest the state ban such crops.

Where should the state draw that line? Should the state judge the worthiness of crops based on water use? Nutritional value? Profit per acre-foot of water used? Is broccoli acceptable, but not wine grapes? How do we account for the tremendous waterfowl habitat created by rice fields?

It is not the proper role of the state to tell farmers what to grow. Those who plant almonds, pistachios and other permanent crops take the risk that they can keep orchards and vineyards irrigated year after year. Some of those bets may not pay off.

Other critics argue that the governor should halt groundwater pumping to prevent the depletion of aquifers. Groundwater is a concern, and we need better management. But we are not going to run out of groundwater this year or next.

Where overpumping is causing subsidence, local governments can pass ordinances to restrict pumping. New state laws already are forcing local governments to organize themselves to put plans in place in the next five years for sustainable pumping and recharge.

California has always leaned on its tremendous groundwater resources in dry years. To swiftly and unilaterally restrict farmers from that resource would only worsen economic devastation – unnecessarily, in most cases. Groundwater is a highly localized resource and needs to be managed as such.

This drought has the power to divide us, but it may also bring us together. A 25 percent cutback is not too much to ask in a state where overwatering is often the biggest problem plaguing lawns.

We don’t use the same kinds of phones or drive the same kinds of cars as we did a generation ago. Why shouldn’t we also modernize our landscapes?

Come the next inevitable drought, the change will do us good.

Mark Cowin is director of the California Department of Water Resources.

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