Water for Food

By Peter H. Gleick

A version of this essay was originally printed in the Sacramento Bee on September 9, 2008.

As California politicians continue to argue over developing comprehensive solutions to the state’s water problems, eyes are inevitably turning to the agricultural sector, which uses 80 percent of the water consumed by Californians.

Agriculture is important to our economy, culture and environment, but it is subject to mounting pressure from uncontrolled urbanization, global market pressures and threats to the reliability and availability of fresh water. A new Pacific Institute report demonstrates that we can support a more sustainable and profitable agricultural sector while substantially decreasing agricultural water withdrawals. Not only can we do more with less; we must do more with less.

Every water-scarce region runs into the same challenge. As the demand for water outstrips local supplies, we first seek to tap ever-more-distant resources through the construction of massive dams and vast aqueduct systems. California went through this phase in the 20th century, building the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, the Colorado River Aqueduct, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Hetch Hetchy and Mokelumne systems, and countless other components of our modern water supply.

But it is a myth that just a few more dams or bigger groundwater pumps will, once and for all, solve our water problems. With the economic, ecological and political realities of taking even more water from overtaxed rivers and aquifers becoming more apparent, harder decisions have to be made. The good news is that there are smart things that can be done.

Currently, our farmers face two very different futures. One leads 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 leads to a carefully planned and efficient agricultural sector, long-term protections for land and water resources, and the production of more high-value crops grown with efficient irrigation systems that are managed to respond to varying weather and crop conditions.

We can choose to make California agriculture more water-efficient and productive, thereby ensuring that farming remains a central element of our culture and economy. The key is to improve water-use efficiency and provide for greater reliability so that farmers can apply sufficient water when and where it is needed. We can protect high-quality agricultural land from urban encroachment through careful planning, and we can grow more food with less water.

The Pacific Institute’s new study evaluates four scenarios that improve agricultural water-use efficiency. Each is a straightforward extension of trends and efforts already under way by innovative growers around the state, and each shows the potential to increase production with less water. Over the past two decades, farmers have slowly shifted toward sprinkler and drip irrigation systems, which can boost production without increasing water use. They have reduced the acreage devoted to field crops, such as cotton, alfalfa and irrigated pasture, while growing more fruits, nuts and vegetables. They are also improving management practices. For example, automated weather stations throughout the state provide information to help farmers more accurately judge the right timing for irrigation, and smart monitors can help farmers distribute water on fields more precisely.

But farmers need help to accelerate these changes. Initial costs are often high for changing irrigation systems. Our complex system of water rights is inconsistently applied and rarely enforced, and it does not provide incentives for farmers to reduce wasteful uses. Perverse subsidies often lead to overapplication of water rather than more careful use.

For the agricultural sector to make necessary adaptations and investments, the state needs to implement policies and offer incentives that support water conservation and efficiency improvements.

How can we start along this path? We can offer tax exemptions and rebates to farmers who upgrade to more efficient irrigation systems. The State Water Board can enforce California’s water-rights laws more rationally. Water districts and individual growers can more accurately measure exactly how much water is being used to do what. And new water-rate structures can be developed to encourage efficient water use.

We are at a crossroads. If farming is going to thrive in the coming decades, we must begin planning now for a smooth transition to efficient, modern agriculture that uses less water to grow more food and produces more income for farmers than today. It is time for California to implement economic and environmental policies that support agricultural water conservation and efficiency, both for the good of the environment and for the health and sustainability of our farmers. Let’s figure out how to do more with less.

Peter H. Gleick directs the Pacific Institute in Oakland and has been researching and writing on water problems for 25 years. Read Institute’s new report, More with Less