Let’s Start Overcoming Obstacles: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency

Published: January 28, 2009
Authors: Juliet Christian-Smith, Heather Cooley, Peter Gleick

The Pacific Institute released a report several months ago on the potential for greater agricultural water conservation and efficiency in areas that depend on water either flowing into or being exported out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Each of the four scenarios we analyzed offers the potential to reduce agricultural water withdrawals in the region by 5 to 13 percent. These numbers are hardly radical compared to the experiences of many farmers who have implemented water conservation techniques. Yet these savings represent a lot of water. Moreover, we didn’t look at other practices such as fallowing (which we don’t consider “efficiency” in any sense of the word); new, genetically modified cultivars that use less water; or other new ideas and technologies that are just starting to appear.

We conclude that California can grow more food with less water—this is great news. But potential savings are not real savings until we take action, which is why we provide a lengthy discussion about the very real barriers to making some of these improvements: capital costs, regulatory constraints, unclear or inflexible water rights laws, lack of data and knowledge, and underfunded extension services. We describe the barriers that growers and districts are currently facing and offer some concrete recommendations on overcoming them.

While the report received a lot of positive attention from water policy makers, growers, media, and more (including calls from many farmers thanking us for highlighting their work in these areas or asking for help in overcoming the barriers to improving their efficiency), we also received negative responses. Here, we describe four key criticisms:

  1. Our analysis was not “new” – people have been writing about efficiency for decades.
    We don’t argue that the approaches we analyze are new. On the contrary, we went out of our way to assess techniques that many farmers throughout the state are already implementing, and we set out to determine what is working best and how much more can be done. In the face of a third year of drought and water reductions, determining where we can increase water-use efficiency is a critical question for all water users.
  2. The water savings doesn’t exist or we would have found it already.
    This criticism implies that all of water conservation and efficiency measures are already being implemented to their fullest potential, which is highly unlikely given the barriers identified. From the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley to the Central Coast to the Imperial Valley, we have met with California farmers, local farm bureaus, and irrigation districts to gather input from the agricultural community. It is clear from the experience of farmers around the state that there still remains a tremendous amount of potential water savings.
  3. On-farm water efficiency does not matter because excess water will be used by someone downstream, making water use on the basin scale extremely efficient.
    This criticism relies on two implied conclusions: (1) there isn’t any water to be saved, and (2) there is no value to reducing unnecessary withdrawals. Both of these are false.In regard to the first implied conclusion, critics argue: “If so much water could be saved, where is it? It must be going somewhere.” It is going somewhere: it is being consumed in unproductive evaporation. It is disappearing in the production of low-valued crops. It is ending up in other vegetation, including weeds and unimportant parts of the crop. It is flowing off fields as contaminated return flows to be shunted off into sinks. And it is ending up in saline groundwater layers that no one else can ever use.In regard to the second implied conclusion, reductions in total water withdrawals (including consumptive and non-consumptive uses) are also important but are not fully appreciated. Every acre-foot of water that is applied must be taken from a stream or groundwater basin. Thus, applying more water than needed can waste energy and money. It also hurts ecosystems and degrades water quality. And while the environmental and water quality impacts are often discounted, these two issues are the major drivers of litigation and regulation of water resources in California. Therefore, if one of our goals is to minimize conflicts between water users in the future, then reducing total water withdrawals can help us achieve that goal.
  4. And finally, most of the thoughtful responses to our assessment have reluctantly concluded: yes, there is water to be saved through efficiency, but we just don’t agree with how much.
    This is a huge step forward. Much like the climate change argument, we need to move beyond the paralysis of arguing about the problem and instead address how to solve it. We need to stop arguing about whether there is additional efficiency potential and start the conversation about the best ways to capture it. Our report never contends that on-farm conservation is the single solution to satisfy all demands. Everyone who struggles with California’s water problems understands that a “portfolio” of solutions is needed – a complex mix of infrastructure and smart management using economic, regulatory, and educational tools. We are going to have to change how we manage our water in every sector.

So, let’s quickly adopt the cost-effective options that can help us grow more food with less water. Let’s reduce the barriers to improving efficiency by offering financial incentives for new technology, and by expanding extension services that offer better information on climate and weather factors, soil moisture conditions, crop water demands. Let’s improve markets so that the trend away from water-intensive field crops continues.

The alternative is to let California’s unofficial water policy continue to be hoping next year is wet, and to respond after crises develop rather than before. We don’t believe this is the best thing to do, and we don’t think the agricultural community does either based on the many farmers and irrigation districts that are already trying to do more with less. In the end, not only can we do more with less, but we must.

Read More More with Less: Agricultural Water  Conservation and Efficiency in California A Special Focus on the Delta.