Posted by: Jan | April 18, 2018

How the CV Farmers and their supporters think about water in California


I listened to an interesting audio stream this week, discussing “Sustainable farming means farming with less and less water” on the City Visions program on KALW Radio.

Ethan Elkins was the host of the audio stream.
Other participants:
Ellen Hanak, Public Policy Institute of California
Ashley Boren, Sustainable Conservation
Cannon Michael on the phone, Bowles Farming in the Central Valley

First, I’ll post my transcript from that discussion. I apologize up-front if I didn’t capture anything correctly. In particular, I sometimes had trouble telling whether it was Ellen or Ashley talking, so hope I credited the right person with the right statements.

Afterwards, I’ll post the comment I sent in about where the discussion missed the mark.

The Discussion

Ethan: Typically the farmers are not receiving 100 percent allocation. How is that affecting you?
Cannon: Vast area west side has 20 percent allocation. Large, large swath of land that folks are pretty disappointed. The allocation report is coming so late [due to the late rainfall], it makes it hard to plan and plant. [Jan’s note – not sure what the state should do about that, if anything. They can’t allocate until they know how much they have.]

Ellen: We move water around a lot in California. A lot of it is based on who owns the source.

Shasta Dam comments: There were comments about Fed support for raising Shasta Dam. That was surprising, they said. CA has a state bond with almost $3 billion going. There are 11 projects in competition for that funding. Raising Shasta isn’t one of those 11. Those involve some above ground, other in-ground storage.

Ethan: Do we need to increase storage?
Ellen: The state needs to take much better advantage of the vast underground water storage we have available – at least 3 times more capability than all of our above ground dams we have now. Plus it’s cheaper and they refill.

Ethan: Why is there a debate about that?
Ellen: It is changing. We haven’t coordinated as well as we can between our above-ground storage and below-ground. Many farmers have converted to micro-sprinklers/drip irrigation. During wet years, they keep using those that are based on ground water instead of taking advantage of the available water.

Cannon: Farmers are doing everything they can to reduce water usage. We are also concerned with the anadromous fish in California. The majority of Shasta is being used for cold water for salmon populations. Chevron recently reported that climate change is real and manmade so we do need to admit that and look at above ground storage to preserve fish species. Underground storage is a regional thing that can/should happen. There’s really no shame it takes water to make food, but need to prove we are good stewards.

Ethan: Where there are the most farms, tends to be the most conservative voters in the state, who don’t believe in climate change. Yet it sounds like you do (to Cannon).
Cannon: Maybe there’s just a sense of exactly what is causing it and … we see crop shifting from southern areas coming into their area, a lot of variability. No tule fog any more. You can see the changes happening. Unfortunately, it’s become such a polarized political discussion, there’s much more people coming to the table and realizing this issue (climate change) is going to continue.

Ethan: Farmers need to grow stuff, people need to eat.

Ethan: We hear CA’s policy sometimes rewards inefficient use of water.
Ashley: I don’t subscribe to the view that our water rights system automatically leads to inefficiency. The system is a little like mining claims. There’s a protection in that, you need to use it or loose it. That was good so people didn’t just sell it to other people. But in CA we do allow trading it. We find that that actually really does help to reallocate it and gives people an incentive to use it efficiently. We aren’t in as terrible shape as some other Westerns states that don’t have as much flexibility. We’re talking about not just drip irrigation, but shifts in what they are growing. CA used to grow just field crops. Now half is orchards, vines, strawberries. That’s the kind of economic efficiency in a state where water is so scares.

Ellen agrees. CA used to mostly grow field crops. Now it’s fruit & nut orchards, vineyards, vegetables. So that’s economic efficiencies.

Ashley agrees ag is extremely water efficient and getting more value for each drop of water. One thing we’ve come to realize is a paradigm shift that has to happen due to climate change. We are having more droughts and some big water years. We want farmers to think about if they have land that can percolate down into the ground, we want them to flood their crops during big water years. Thinking about adapting and really flood irrigate in those really wet years. With our new SGMA passed in 2014, she believes there will be programs that give farmers credit for that.

Cannon: There are certain crops you can’t use drip irrigation. When we get into root veg crops like carrot, onions, garlic that doesn’t always work. We also use GPS and laser level fields because any excess hurts, doesn’t help.

Caller: I understand we grow alfalfa and ship to Saudi Arabia for cows there in the desert where they shouldn’t even have cows.
Ashley: Not sure about the Saudi Arabian cows, but we do grow alfalfa for the CA cattle industry, which is the most revenue for CA.
Ellen: We do export some alfalfa. That particularly comes from the Imperial Valley. There’s very productive desert farmland. Gets senior water rights from the Colorado River. The reason they export it (a) very high quality alfalfa and (b) we have a lot of free shipping containers to go back to Asia and Japan as a result of our trade program.
Cannon: The interesting question is what does “ag water use” actually mean. We are taking water, transforming it, and sending it back to human uses. He’d say a large lawn in Bel Aire is “water use.” It’s a good conversation for people to have when you talk about our need for food. The better way to have the discussion is if it is not produced here in California, where’s it going to come from. Fiber for cloths, etc. Even though the anti-ag folks have done a good job about how much water it takes to produce a hamburger, there are still millions sold every day. Throwing bombs at each other is not productive. Where do we want food and fiber to come from. Should be local and a defined set of penalties for farmers when they break rules. In CA we do protect our workers, we protect our environment. How do we insure safe and affordable food is available for everybody.

Discussing SGMA: Goes into effect Jan 2020
Cannon: It’s possible that huge amounts of land, a million acres, could come out of production, south of the Delta, due to the SGMA. What are other options? Barring increasing storage or fish species. Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing good outcomes from the fish side. If we could come more with a holistic approach to fixing things in the Delta, if we could be more creative and stop fighting each other as much in the courtroom setting, we would see more positive results. There are groups out there that want better solution and moving water is critical. But we can’t do it without the fish species recovering.

Call-in (Doug): Yesterday driving down I-5 sign “Is growing food a waste of water?” He asks “is growing food in a desert a waste of water?” In other areas like Spain, growers grow without water, like dry farming vineyards.
Cannon: About farming in the desert piece,every place needs something. San Francisco can’t be the city it is without Hetch-Hetchy. There shouldn’t be any shame that this is an engineered state requiring moving water around. There isn’t any shame to produce food. If people want store shelves with local food, then … at the end of the day it still takes a considerable amount of water for me to put a tomato on your table. It just is what it takes. If you rely on rain-fed ag, there are too many variables. In CA we need to move the water. There’s no shame in the fact that we eat every day and that takes water.

Ethan: Are there other models, like Israel, that are doing better?
Ellen: It’s kind of funny because during the epic drought, we had a lot of folks coming over from Australia and Israel telling us about the technologies they use. A lot of those are already in use here. California is more on the leading edge than most other places because we do have a lot of regulations in place that mean we grow high quality and responsibility.

Ethan: What’s going on in the Delta?
Ashley: What Cannon was referring to was that the way the water gets there, it has to go through the delta. The way the pumps operate are creating a lot of problems for the Delta Smelt and other species. So now water is cut back to try to protect those species but we haven’t seen any improvement in those species. They are sacrificing without gain. We don’t really understand why they aren’t improving. Part is water, part is habitat, there are predator species in the Delta. There is a whole host of factors. It is kind of a mess in the Delta. What we’d like to see most of all is people working together to try to figure out what to do. We didn’t have enough of that early on and as a result we have people in their camps and a lot of litigation. Something has to be done in the Delta. The Governor is very gung ho about the tunnels so we don’t have to pump and harm the fish.
Ellen: A lot of the scientists are at a point of saying we maybe experiencing a regime shift in this region. Some of the species listed as endangered, there are so few it’s hard to generate a rebound. It’s also hard to use them as indicators for whether you are doing a good job. We need to think about the shift in the approach to ecosystem management and think about goals for the ecosystem instead of a specific species. It means really think about how to be as efficient and effective with that water, combining it with habitat.

Ethan: Would the twin tunnels solve some of these challenges in the Delta?
Ellen: They wouldn’t solve it on their own but are an important piece.

Ethan: What would you like seen as a policy change:
Ashley: One of our big priorities is helping the state and farmers implement the SGMA. It is a critical resource for the state. There are things that need to happen to successfully implement that.
Cannon: No immediate fixes. Would just like to see more of the collaborative spirit and less of the bomb throwing and rhetoric. United by food. United as Californians to the type of state we want to see left to the next generations. I want to see rivers full of fish, good drinking water. How do we marginalize the voices that are trying to make the news. The fact we have great environment, great agriculture, great cities. What is there to lose at this point finding new paths to work together.

Caller Linda: It was really more of an observation. I completely agree in collaboration. I have a lot of empathy for farmers in the CV. But I was a little bit disturbed by us not being ashamed of moving water around and engineering water when we use so much water on almonds and exporting almonds to the world. I think it is disingenuous to say we are putting food on the tables when we are exporting so many almonds.
Ellen: America is built on trade. We import things, we export things, it includes tourism in and out. California is an incredibly productive place to grow a lot of food products that grow well and travel well in international markets.
Ashley: I think almonds are an unfair target. They got so much negative publicity during the drought. When you think about the nutritional value, the protein. It is probably better than other products. Also she wants to know how much water we consume just eating.

Jan’s Comments

The first part of the program was interesting and Cannon seemed very balanced between wanting to produce food and concern about the environment. But once they got to the Delta questions, all three totally missed the point. It’s simple, really. Science says that the Delta ecosystem requires that no more than 3.0 to 3.5 million acre feet/year (MAF) be withdrawn. For decades, the exporters have taken 5.0 MAF +. That is why the fish species are in decline. They’ve known that for years but refuse to limit exports. No amount of new habitat improvements can give us healthy fish without enough fresh water flowing, yes flowing to the ocean. Until that basic fact is faced, the Delta will remain in jeopardy.

What can be done? The caller, Linda, hit the nail on the head when she said, “I think it is disingenuous to say we are putting food on the tables when we are exporting so many almonds.” The acreage of almonds has grown exponentially. Orchards continued to expand even during the drought years. In 2013, one in six acres of line crops in Stanislaus County alone were converted to almonds. The problem with orchards is that trees can’t be fallowed during dry years. And while Ellen was correct that almonds ship well and are very profitable, that also means they can be easily imported. Californians want farmers to grow the fresh fruits and vegetables for out tables first. We don’t want beans and other produce from Mexico if they can be grown locally. Fine if they can also grow nuts, but we can import those. After all, Iran was the main producer of pistachios in the world until the sanctions were imposed and Stewart Resnick started growing pistachios to fill that void. It is interesting to note that Steward Resnick is also a huge, multi-million dollar donor to very right-wing organizations who fight to keep sanctions on Iran. Resnick also is part owner of the privately held Kern Water Bank, which holds four times more water than Hetch-Hetchy. I wonder if that was what Ellen meant when she said projects to increase ground water had some issues.

But I digress. The original CVP idea was that the desert farmlands could take advantage of “excess” Delta water. Now the farmers feel they deserve all of the water their paper contracts say they can have during the wettest years. Actually, there isn’t ever enough water to satisfy all the contracts even during wet years. Cannon talked about the scary potential of taking acreage out of production to satisfy the SGMA. They really need to evaluate and remove acreage, starting with the tainted selenium-laced land by I-5 now. We need to start reducing exports to save the Delta and balance that with reduced almond acreage. Instead, the state plans has been taking fertile Delta farmland out of production and plans to turn our irrigation water here into salt water. That’s just wrong. We need to start working on real solutions for regional self-sufficiency: conservation, recycling, desalination, etc.

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