Saving California Agriculture From The Growing Water Crisis

For Immediate Release: July 22, 2009

New Report Calls for Policy and Management Changes to Save 4.5 – 6 Million Acre Feet of Water Annually

July 22, 2009 – Oakland, Calif.:  New research released today from the Pacific Institute shows that a strong and healthy California agricultural sector can flourish despite diminishing water supply and future uncertainty from climate change, but only if new steps are taken to significantly increase the efficiency of water use in California fields. The good news is that many farmers and irrigation districts have already been making water-use efficiency improvements. The better news is that there is still tremendous untapped potential – in millions of acre-feet. Policy and water management changes are imperative to capture this potential.

The new report, Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future, quantifies the potential to maintain and even increase agricultural productivity while reducing agricultural water withdrawals and vulnerability to drought and climate change. The analysis estimates that potential water savings of between 4.5 – 6 million acre-feet each year can be achieved statewide by comprehensive changes in the irrigation technologies and management practices we use to grow California’s crops. In comparison, this savings is 19 times the amount of water returned to the environment through the recent Delta smelt ruling.

The Institute looked at three water management scenarios:

  • Efficient Irrigation Technology – shifting a fraction of the crops irrigated by flooding fields to sprinkler and drip systems;
  • Improved Irrigation Scheduling – using local climate and soil information to help farmers irrigate more precisely; and
  • Regulated Deficit Irrigation – applying less water to certain crops during drought-tolerant growth stages to save water and improve crop quality.

“The three scenarios we evaluated for improving the efficiency of water use in California agriculture all show the potential for significant water savings,” said Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, “and these are technologies and management strategies that we could implement now, if we would recognize the urgency and have the will to make the tough decisions and policy changes.”

Equally important, the study showed greater potential water savings from improving efficiency during dry years. “As drought becomes more common in California, it is critical that we invest in resources that are ‘drought-proof,’” said Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith, senior research associate of the Pacific Institute and coauthor of the report. “California can’t be blind to the management mistakes that led to the widespread collapse of agriculture in Australia’s Murray-Darling basin as a result of severe drought. There, pricing and allocation policies had allowed water to be seen as an abundant resource even as signs of over-allocation and environmental decline were obvious. Australia’s experience could be a harbinger of California’s future unless we take action today.”

Many farmers have worked hard to improve water-use efficiency in recent years, but the Sustaining California Agriculture report shows that significant potential for water savings remains. For example, an astounding 60% of crops are still irrigated in California by flooding the field – a practice that leads to unproductive water loss. Conversion to sprinkler and drip irrigation allows farmers to apply water with greater precision and uniformity. Other management practices, such as irrigation scheduling and regulated deficit irrigation, have also been shown to reduce water use while improving crop quality and/or yield.

The report features several “early adopters” from the agricultural community, growers who have implemented water conservation and efficiency improvements to benefit both their future and their bottom-line. Craig McNamara, owner and operator of Sierra Orchards, has converted many fields to drip irrigation and installed tailwater recovery ponds to capture excess water runoff. “Conservation has to be a critical part of what we’re doing on the farm and as citizens of California,” stressed McNamara. A video clip and transcribed interview with Craig McNamara is available at the Pacific Institute’s website: http://pacinst.org/publication/sustaining-california-agriculture-in-an-uncertain-future/.

Key to success in making water efficiency improvements for farmers like McNamara has been financial support from federal, state, and local programs. The new report makes specific recommendations to expand this support, such as property and sales tax exemptions, rebates for efficient irrigation equipment, greater federal support through Farm Bill conservation programs, and pricing policies that generate funds that can be invested in local farms.

“Looking at how these innovative growers have been able to increase their income, crop yields, and production, even during drought, offers lessons for the entire farming community,” said Gleick. “Such success stories offer the state a vision for what a healthy agricultural future might look like, at a time when the sector as a whole is under increasing stress.”

The report outlines further strategies and solutions to improve agricultural water conservation and efficiency in California and help strengthen the sector to face the challenges of climate change and drought. Critical among them are:

  • Provide financial assistance and incentives for more farmers to implement efficient irrigation methods.
  • Update district irrigation delivery systems to provide water to farmers when it is needed.
  • Change current state law, which allows local government to create local groundwater management authorities, to require such authorities throughout the state.
  • Provide legislative, regulatory, and administrative support to update the water rights system given future hydrologic uncertainties.
  • Empower the State Water Resources Control Board to act as an independent body by changing the appointment and funding processes.
  • Develop economic strategies, including pricing, water markets, and water transfer agreements that provide incentives to improve efficiency rather than incentives to consume water.
  • Ensure that state and federal water contracts comply with state water law and encourage water conservation by promoting and implementing diverse best management practices.

The report cites one of the primary challenges to managing water issues in California as the lack of a consistent, comprehensive, and accurate estimate of actual water use, by crop, sector, or region. “In a state with such contentious and difficult water challenges, the failure to accurately account for water use contributes directly to the failure to manage it sustainably,” said Heather Cooley, senior research associate of the Pacific Institute and coauthor of the report. “We need a statewide system to monitor and exchange water use data, including groundwater.”

“If California wants a healthy agricultural sector, and if significant new sources of supply remain out of reach or are too expensive, we have no choice but to implement conservation and efficiency more aggressively,” said Gleick. “These are critical tools to help us adapt to a drier future and continue to be a world leader in agricultural production. Implementation is going to require technical, infrastructure, legal, and economic forces to work together for change. Yes, it’s complex, but the good news is that we’re starting to move in the right direction.”

Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities. Through interdisciplinary research and partnering with stakeholders, the Institute produces solutions that advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity – in California, nationally, and internationally. www.pacinst.org.

Comparison of Water Quantities

For an average water year, the water conservation and efficiency practices identified in this Pacific Institute report have the potential to save 5.6 million acre-feet of water, equivalent to:

  • more than 16 times the amount of water that can be stored in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir;
  • triple the water that can be stored in the far larger San Luis Reservoir;
  • 4.5 times the water than could be stored in the proposed Temperance Flats Reservoir;
  • 19 times the water restored to the environment in the recent Delta smelt ruling;
  • more than double the 2.3 million acre-feet in urban efficiency improvements identified in the Pacific Institute’s earlier evaluation of the potential for residential, commercial, and industrial efficiency improvements (Waste Not, Want Not).

This savings represents around 17% of all of the water used by agriculture in California.