California farmers – the most innovative, productive and knowledgeable farmers in the world – recently found themselves becoming the punching bag for practically every editorial writer, public policy think-tank, professor and talk-radio demagogue from here to New York.
Gov. Jerry Brown has received a fair amount of scorn, too, for “letting farmers off the hook” by not imposing water restrictions on agriculture at the same time that he issued his order mandating 25 percent water reductions by cities and towns.
If your history of the drought doesn’t extend past April 1, you might be excused for wondering why no additional agricultural water cuts were ordered. But the governor, who has previously been referred to as “the adult in the room,” has played that role again, explaining to people that farmers have endured two years of significant, mandatory cuts in water supplies, and how those cuts have rippled across rural California – land idled, people thrown out of work, communities suffering.
As vitriolic and discouraging as the criticism has been, it has at least gotten Californians thinking again about our state’s outdated water system and the way water is used. Farmers welcome that discussion. But let’s have an honest discussion.
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Discussion of water use can’t be honest unless it accounts for all the water used in California. That means discarding the tired old “80 percent” figure that we’ve heard so much in recent days, as in “agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water.” It’s a twisted and dishonest representation that is intended to incite discontent.
An honest discussion of California water use would include the significant proportion of the state’s water dedicated to environmental purposes. At a meeting in the Governor’s Office recently involving environmental, agricultural and urban representatives, it was agreed that in an average year, 50 percent of surface water from rain and snow goes to environmental purposes, 40 percent toward growing food and farm products, and 10 percent for urban needs. These numbers will vary depending on the amount of rain and snow that falls in any particular year, but correctly managed and stored, there’s plenty of water to meet all needs, even during periods of extended drought.
As a farmer, I can account for the amount of food I produce with the water I have: the amount of “crop per drop.” Municipal water managers can also account for the water they provide to their customers. But those who “manage” environmental water have no such ability or requirement to account for the effectiveness of those flows. It seems the 1 gallon of water it takes to produce an almond that a person is going to eat is bad, but the thousands of gallons of water dedicated to each fish that feeds no one is OK.
No matter what figure we assign to agricultural water use, the real point is that farmers devote water to growing food. Food and water are the most fundamental needs of society, upon which the entire rest of the economy is built.
That leads us to a second statistic that’s being used as a weapon these days: “Agriculture accounts for only 2 percent of the gross state product.” This one is usually coupled with the “80 percent” figure to allow for a double-damning of agricultural water use.
When pundits or professors throw that stat around, they don’t say what sector of the economy would be more deserving of the water. That would be an honest discussion to have. What is a more important use of water than growing food? Not “more valuable,” in terms of dollars and cents; by that measure, every major league professional athlete is more valuable to society than every kindergarten teacher. No, what’s more important?
There are few industries that are truly essential to maintain life. Agriculture is one of them. There are few if any places in the world with the combination of climate, soil, water and know-how needed to grow food with the efficiency, care and stewardship that occur in California.
Any discussion of water needs to include more than just cannibalizing each other. It has to include how we add to the existing water supply through new storage, more recycling, more desalination.
It’s time to start having that honest discussion about how to address California’s water problems.
Paul Wenger of Modesto is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.