Time to Tap into Water-Wise Farmers’ Well of Ideas

By Peter Gleick, Heather Cooley, and Juliet Christian-Smith

A version of this essay was originally printed in the Modesto Bee on October 2, 2008.

Water supply constraints have reduced the amount of water available for California this year, causing economic losses and midseason fallowing for many farmers. Independent of what we might want, it is very likely that there will continue to be serious constraints on water available to all California users, including agriculture.

At a recent state Board of Food and Agriculture meeting in Sacramento, Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura stated that because of changes in the timing and reliability of water supply, “doing nothing is not an option.”

We agree and think it is time for an open and honest discussion about the full range of ways to respond to the water crisis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and throughout the state. Certainly, new infrastructure for water supply is one option that might be necessary. But it is also critical that farmers explore another promising option: agricultural water conservation and efficiency.

A new Pacific Institute report, “More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California,” does this by looking at what innovative California farmers are already doing and offering ideas to help overcome barriers to further improvements.

We may be facing another drought year. The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center are forecasting a third dry winter in a row for California. While they both could be wrong, of course, even most optimists don’t think it likely that there will be more water for agriculture in coming years as population and environmental pressures grow, uncontrolled development in the Central Valley continues, and climate changes get worse.

We thus face two choices: Ignore the possibility of ongoing water reductions and let them randomly destroy farms and communities; or plan to manage changes in agricultural water availability and reliability, and improve the productivity of the water that is available. We prefer the second approach, and our report examines how we can maintain a healthy and profitable agricultural sector into the future.

There is a basic question here: Is there any potential for the agricultural sector to use water more efficiently? Many farmers have responded with a resounding “yes.” Even James O’Banion of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority in a Sept. 15 letter to the Pacific Institute conceded that “there may be some additional gains in some of these areas.” If even a small amount of water could be saved or used more efficiently, then it is worth having a discussion about how to provide the appropriate incentives to achieve these savings.

We offer concrete recommendations for ways to overcome the financial, legal, and institutional barriers that currently inhibit or discourage efficient water use. For instance, we suggest providing rebates to farmers on more efficient irrigation equipment, and property tax exemptions for on-farm improvements that reduce water use. We also suggest the state provide more funding for educational and technical outreach programs such as agricultural extension services, which are not funded to an appropriate level to help deal with water-efficiency challenges. It is time to invest in the many “water-wise” farmers whose efforts bring benefits far beyond the farm gate and to create incentives that encourage other farmers to become more water-wise.

In his commentary in The Bee (“Study subtly aimed at getting more water for environment,” Sept. 25, Page B-5), O’Banion made some serious misrepresentations of our report. His comments reflect a knee-jerk response to any suggestions for how farmers might actively address growing concerns over water. There are those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand or attack research findings and recommendations, but this does little to help farmers or to deal with the crisis at hand. We encourage every member of the agricultural community to read the report.

Read the Pacific Institute’s full response to O’Banion’s letter

Peter Gleick, Heather Cooley, and Juliet Christian-Smith are authors of the Pacific Institute new report, More with Less.