Linda McQueen: Excessive use of water by agriculture? Think again
Last week the governor of California mandated an unprecedented reduction of 25 percent of water use due to our severe drought condition. Certain media — national and local — have focused and spun agriculture as an abuser of water without similar restrictions. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss California agriculture in a more complete perspective.
California GDP is over $2 trillion and represents the largest GDP of any state in the U.S. — even ranking eighth in the world. Agriculture is one of the vital elements of the state’s economy. California leads the nation in the production of fruit, vegetables, wine, nuts and dairy. It is true that direct production ag is only 2 percent of the California economy; but government, followed by health care and social assistance are the largest. Agriculture is a major contributor to the economy valued at $43 billion, plus more than $100 billion in related economic activities. Ag is not only important to California, but also to the U.S. Per CDFA, California ag sales exceeded twice the size of any other state’s agriculture industry.
California is the world’s fifth largest supplier of food and ag commodities. California is the largest producer of food in the U.S. California produces 80 to 99 percent of all U.S.-grown artichokes, grapes, walnuts, peaches, pomegranates, dates, figs, kiwi, olives, tomatoes, pistachios, garlic, lemons, broccoli, cauliflower, avocados and strawberries. California agriculture is important for the availability of domestic, affordable and safe food to all of us in the United States.
We have also heard assertions in the media regarding excessive use of water by the agricultural community without enduring restrictions. This cannot be further from the truth. Ag accounts for 41 percent of the state’s total applied water use (applied water use by category: urban, 10 percent; irrigated ag, 4 percent; wetlands, 2 percent; required delta outflow, 6.5 percent; instream flow, 8.5 percent; wild/scenic rivers, 31 percent). But we have made great strides in irrigation efficiency improvements. Over the past 45 years, we have increased crop production per acre-foot of water by 43 percent. Almond production alone had decreased water consumption by 33 percent in past two decades. We continue to optimize irrigation practices and crop dynamics.
Aside from improved efficiencies, the ag sector was the first level to feel the pain of the drought. Depending on geography and water sources, farmers are facing mandatory reductions in surface water supplies by 60 percent, 80 percent, or even 100 percent. Various restrictions have been in place over the past four years. Tens of thousands of acres are left fallow and many trees and vines have been removed prematurely. There is also the human factor that is often overlooked. The majority of farms are family-owned and we are observing some generational businesses being lost. The rural areas are hit the hardest with layoffs from farms, distribution, processing and related business. The ripple effect is significant with further impacts on the tax base of the rural counties for schools and other services.
There is another aspect that is critical as we try to manage and survive these extreme drought conditions — environmental.
California has a series of federal, state and local water projects with extensive reservoir systems. Over the recent years, courts have upheld an inflexible law, the Endangered Species Act, and mandated significant water releases from the reservoirs to support the salmon runs. This has resulted in a massive draw down of the storage water that flowed to the ocean instead of being conserved and returned to the natural terrestrial water cycle. For example, in 2012-13, 1.3 million acre feet from just Lake Trinity and San Joaquin Reservoir flowed to the ocean in the name of fish restoration. Is this survival of fish versus people? And I have not even touched on the environmental benefits of farmland that represent habitats for birds or more.
In our current state, the “wet” season is over, snowpack (our life blood of spring and summer) is 5 percent of normal, and reservoirs average half of their capacity. This is a scary time. It is more critical than ever that we work together and be smart about our actions.
Linda McQueen lives in Grass Valley.
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