Apr 17, 2015 | Alliance Op/Ed

Farmers not to blame for crisis in California

While The Register-Guard’s April 2 editorial, “California’s Sierra Nada,” was a thankful departure from much of the incomplete recent coverage in other media outlets, a few points require further clarification and explanation.

Immediately after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered city dwellers across California to cut water use by 25 percent as part of a sweeping set of mandatory drought restrictions, he was put on the defensive, as his administration tried to deflect criticism from urban media that farmers were mostly spared from his latest drought mitigation measures.

Many accounts since the governor’s announcement have advanced the decades-old myth that agriculture consumes about 80 percent of California’s water. Actually, agriculture now uses 41 percent of California’s total water supply, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Brown’s drought message nailed it: “Agricultural water users … have borne much of the brunt of the drought to date, with hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres, significantly reduced water allocations and thousands of farmworkers laid off… .”

More than 2 million acres of farmland saw their surface water supply from the federal government shut off last year. Nearly 1 million additional acres that get surface water from the state received only 5 percent of their supply last year.

This year, more than 41 percent of California’s irrigated farmland will lose 80 percent or more of its normal surface water allocation, according to a new survey by the California Farm Water Coalition. This survey shows that 3.1 million acres of California’s irrigated farmland — an area slightly larger than Lane County — will see deep cuts to the water delivered in a normal year. These actions are due, in part, to decisions made by state and federal agencies that kept the contracted water in-stream to meet the perceived needs of the environment.

These agricultural lands typically provide vast amounts of food and fiber to the world, and are the economic foundation of rural communities.

What have California farmers done to offset these devastating losses?

Some have been forced to buy water, when it’s available, from other sources. In certain instances, farmers had no choice but to buy water at a rate more than 25 times what they normally would pay. In the absence of once-reliable surface water supplies, California farmers have looked to groundwater (where available), which is not sustainable. And that source is not their choice.

Central Valley producers have been trying to get ahead of a much feared, but anticipated, drought for years. Notably, they’ve spent about $3 billion to install more efficient irrigation systems on almost 2.5 million acres from 2003 to 2013. These investments will continue as farmers strive to stretch their water supply. But it’s difficult to conserve even more water when there is none.

Some have recently suggested that the shift toward higher-value crops such as nuts and wine grapes has led to an increase in agricultural water use. But according to California’s Department of Water Resources, the total amount of agricultural water has held steady since 2000 and actually declined over a longer period.

Certain media outlets desperately want to write a story that simply is not there. Meanwhile, California producers are starting to feel that their way of life is being written off by a segment of the public that appears to believe that the tragedy occurring in the Central Valley is a righteous comeuppance that the farmers deserve.

I still hold a sliver of hope that critical thinkers and leaders will easily distinguish nonsense from reality.

The Register-Guard speculates that Californians may soon look north to the Columbia River as a source of new water. There really is no such need. Five years ago, reservoirs in California were chock full of water. Since then, much of that stored water – which had previously supplied Central Valley farms for decades — has been allowed to flow out the Golden Gate by federal fisheries agencies, with no apparent benefit for the fish species that the water is intended to protect.

California water managers — if provided with some common-sense regulatory flexibility — should be allowed to better manage their own stored water. That, more than anything else, will keep them from looking north to the Columbia River.