California Can Grow More Food AND Take Less Water from the Delta

By Heather Cooley and Juliet Christian-Smith

A version of this essay was originally printed in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 8, 2008.

We can do more with less. Nations in drier climates around the world and forward-thinking farmers in California already are using less water to grow more crops – with greater profits. It is time for California to implement economic and environmental policies that encourage farmers to use water more efficiently, both for the good of the environment and to sustain a robust agricultural sector.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is in a state of crisis, both as an ecosystem and as a water supply. Almost half of the water used for California’s agriculture comes from rivers that once flowed to the delta, and more than half of Californians rely on water conveyed through the delta for at least some of their water supply. It is imperative that we recognize what both the recent court decisions and the scientists are saying: We’re taking too much water from the delta.

Given that agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of delta water consumption, reducing withdrawals from the delta will inevitably affect farmers. We have two options, two very different paths to reduced agricultural water use. One is to choose to let events evolve as they will, which may lead to growing disruptions in the agricultural sector, uncertainty about the reliability of food production, and the weakening of a vital component of our traditional economy. The other is to work toward a carefully planned and efficient agricultural sector, long-term protections for land and water resources, and the production of more high-valued crops grown with efficient irrigation systems that are effectively managed to respond to weather and crop conditions.

By changing what crops are grown and how we grow them, the report concludes that we can achieve substantial water savings, ranging from 0.6 million to 3.4 million acre-feet of water annually, and for far less than building new, centralized water storage. In fact, if we look at water savings in “dam equivalents,” the scenarios examined in the study could save as much water as three to 20 dams the size of those being proposed.

But for the agricultural sector to make such adaptations and investments, the state needs to implement policies and incentives that support water conservation and efficiency improvements. Farmers are already trying to undertake many of these strategies, but they need to overcome some difficult financial, legal and institutional barriers.

There are numerous ways to move forward, including:

— The state can offer tax exemptions and rebates for farmers who upgrade to more efficient irrigation systems.

— Courts and regulators can apply California’s water-rights laws more rationally to ensure water is being used reasonably and beneficially.

— Water use measurement and monitoring should be drastically improved.

— Misguided federal and state subsidies that encourage wasteful use of water can be redesigned to encourage efficiency and conservation.

Farmers have been moving in the right direction for decades, growing more food with less water under difficult conditions. Let’s remove the barriers in their way and help them move even faster.

Agricultural water-use efficiency can be improved through careful planning, by adopting existing, cost-effective technologies and management practices, and by implementing feasible policy changes. Our findings show that it is possible – indeed, far preferable – to take less water and still improve the delta’s economic and environmental conditions. Not only can we do more with less; we must do more with less.

A new report from the Pacific Institute, “More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California – A Special Focus on the Delta,” offers a roadmap to the better option: significantly reducing delta withdrawals and groundwater overdraft while still sustaining a strong agricultural economy.

Heather Cooley and Juliet Christian-Smith are senior research associates at the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan research institute that works to advance environmental protection, economic development and social equity. The institute’s new report, “More with Less,” is available here.