As Californians prepare for unprecedented mandatory water reductions of 25 percent beginning next month, state officials find themselves defending a decision to exclude the biggest water user in the state in the required cutbacks – agriculture.
Critics have charged that Gov. Jerry Brown’s order unfairly exempts agriculture from mandatory water savings, despite the industry’s consumption of 80 percent of the state’s water supply that is available for people, businesses and irrigation.
“He’s scratching the surface and not addressing the elephant in the room,” said Adam Scow, director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
Brown and state officials said agriculture already has taken a significant hit in the drought, with farmers’ water allotments reduced by state and federal agencies – a reduction that has forced farmers to fallow fields, pay higher prices for water and lay off thousands of workers. This year, California farmers who rely on water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project have been told they will receive nothing due to the drought, while the State Water Project will deliver 20 percent of promised water.
“How do you take a reduction below zero?” asked Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a trade association for citrus producers in the state, many of whom rely on the Central Valley Project. “I don’t get it. The end result is we’ve already lost any and all surface water we could have received, so you can’t take any more from us.”
On Wednesday, Brown announced the first-ever mandatory cutbacks for residential and business water users as he stood in a browned meadow in the Sierra Nevada that is typically covered in snow. Brown joined snow surveyers for the annual snowpack survey, where the worst snowpack ever recorded was entered into California’s record books. The water content in the snow was just 5 percent of normal – the lowest it’s been since records were compiled starting in 1950.
Brown’s order called for urban users to reduce water use by 25 percent and create programs to help homeowners replace grass with drought-tolerate landscaping, and replace water-guzzling dishwashers and toilets with more efficient ones. Brown also called on farmers to share more information about the water they are using.
“Agriculture is fundamental to California,” Brown told PBS' NewsHour. “And, yes, they use most of the water, and they produce the food and the fiber that we all depend on and which we export to countries all around the world. So, we’re asking them too to give us information, to file agriculture water plans, to manage their underground water, to share with other farmers.”
A UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences study last year found the 2014 drought resulted in a 6.6 million acre-foot reduction in surface water available to farmers. (One acre-foot of water is equivalent to roughly a football field covered in a foot of water.) That’s a 25 percent reduction in the normal amount of surface water available to agriculture, the study found. And it was mostly replaced by increased groundwater pumping.
“When people question what are farmers doing, many are fallowing grounds and watching their perennial crops die, even in historically water rich areas,” said David Doll, a Merced County nut crop pomology farm adviser through the University of California Cooperative Extension.
Doll, who advises farmers on best practices for efficient watering and other sustainability issues, said many farmers have upgraded their irrigation systems so there is little waste.
“This drought impacts farming severely,” Dolls said. “I think in many cases we don’t understand how bad it will affect agriculture until the end of the year.”
Higher water prices and more than 400,000 acres of fallowed fields cost farmers $2.2 billion statewide last year, the Watershed Sciences study found, with 17,000 seasonal and part-time farmworker jobs eliminated.
“Agriculture is already getting substantial cutbacks,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.
Lund said requiring a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use by agriculture is also unfeasible.
“You don’t meter their groundwater use, so you can’t regulate it,” Lund said. “It’s not enforceable and its not a good idea. You do have to cut agriculture in a drought, but we need to be more thoughtful and compassionate about it. You are messing with peoples’ livelihoods.”
Nelsen of the citrus growers trade group said the roughly 3,500 citrus growers in California , which provide 85 percent of the nation’s fresh lemons, oranges and other citrus, are preparing for a down year, due to fallowed fields, port strikes and smaller fruit due to reduced watering. He said the state needs to consider reducing the water directed for environmental purposes, which makes up nearly half of the overall water supply – this includes both water available for agriculture, industry and urban uses and water that is off-limits to help sustain fish and wildlife. Agriculture uses 80 percent of the water available for drinking and irrigation – but 40 percent of the total supply.
“When people argue that agriculture wasn’t included, maybe not in this order,” Nelsen said. “All the impact has already occurred. …What do we do with the water supply? We produce food. I don’t think that’s a bad use of water.”
Critics charge that agriculture’s dominance over the state’s water supply is lopsided when considering the industry accounts for just 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Critics say the $40 billion agriculture industry has too much political pull in the state Capitol, accounting for lax regulations.
Nowhere was that seen more than in last year’s fight to create groundwater regulations in California, the only Western state that does not monitor its underground water supplies. Pushback from agriculture interests helped delay the implementation of the legislation until 2022.
Tom Stokely, a spokesman for the environmental group the California Water Impact Network, said Brown’s mandatory drought order further shows that agriculture’s clout has allowed the industry to resist regulation.
“It’s a good thing for urban users to conserve water, but since agriculture uses 80 percent of water, he missed the mark by not including agriculture,” Stokely said. “A lot of people feel their efforts to conserve water are so that a wealthy almond farmer can plant more trees and make greater profit.”
Stokely said there were reasonable measures the governor could have taken to ensure the drought isn’t being exacerbated.
“What was glaringly omitted was a prohibition of new crops in areas of groundwater overdraft, unreliable water supplies and what we call poison land, where they have land high in selenium.” Stokley said.
Water policy experts said the kind of finger-pointing seen following Brown’s order has been intensifying as the drought worsens.
“You are starting to see that,” said Heather Cooley, director of the water program at the Pacific Institute in Oakland. “Urban vs. Agriculture. Fish vs. Farm. People tend to first look at others. But, the fact is we need to pull together.”