Water Policies Focused on the Future are Needed Today

macro photography of drop of water on top of green plant

The public policy of California is to flush away our water, as if the snow in our mountains and the runoff in our rivers were nothing more than the expulsions of a giant toilet bowl.

Wasting so much water makes it hard for farmers like me to grow the crops that everyone needs.

trees covered with snowThere’s no good reason for this, especially right now. Following several years of drought, during which farmers received little or no water for crop irrigation, the snowpack recorded last month in the Sierra Nevada was the deepest in 70 years. It’s like the snow from two or three winters fell in a single season.

That’s great news for me and farmers across the California Central Valley. I expect to receive a full allotment of surface water this year, which will be invested to grow pistachios, tomatoes, onions, and wine grapes—crops that work well with irrigation systems.

Surface water is the best kind of water. In California It comes from snowmelt, so it’s pure and fresh. Crops love it. Because of this, our yields may be up by as much as 30 percent this year.

The groundwater in our area can meet the basic needs of crops, but it’s slightly saline, as if someone added a pinch of salt to a glass of water. Nobody would choose to drink it unless there was no other option.

For the last couple of years, groundwater has been the best option on our farm because we haven’t received a single drop of surface water from irrigation. Our allotment has been precisely zero percent. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough groundwater to go around. We’ve bought extra water as well as let a lot of fields lie fallow – that means I’m not farming that land at all.

cumulus cloudsPart of this calamity was the unavoidable result of a drought. We can’t do much about a lack of rain or snow. Farmers are always beholden to the weather, and we know from long experience that we’ll have wet years and dry years.

Yet a drought doesn’t have to punish us. California collects water through a large infrastructure of reservoirs.  When they are full, they can hold about 42 million acre-feet of water.  An acre-foot of water is the amount of water two families of four would use in a year, or enough to submerge the state of Iowa in knee deep water.  Each year, the state diverts at least half of its water supply for environmental purposes.  Farmers use about 80 percent of what’s left – in other words, 40 percent of the total water available.

Back when I started to farm in the 1970s, we usually received a full allotment of surface water. Even in 1977, which was the driest year on record, we received an allotment of 25 percent.

Nowadays, I can’t assume we’ll have any water. The last time I received a full allotment of water was 2017 and before that in 2006.

During this era of water scarcity, I’ve made technological adjustments so that I can do more with less. We’re much better at using water today than we were a generation ago. In our irrigated fields, for example, we deliver water to crops through subsurface drip lines, which carefully measures amounts and places it exactly where it is best utilized, protecting against evaporation.

Yet for all the changes that farmers have made on their own land, the state has failed to keep up with its basic responsibilities of infrastructure. We’re still using a system of dams and reservoirs that was built for California’s population in the 1950s, back when less than 15 million people lived here—or roughly the population of the Los Angeles metropolitan area today. As our state approaches an overall population of 40 million, we’re still relying on outdated structures and practices.

Ideological environmentalists and other special interests with limited or no agriculture background make things worse by demanding water for purposes other than the wellbeing of people. One of them is to fight nutrient pollution in the San Francisco Bay. “The solution so far has been to dilute the nutrient loads in the bay by requiring massive diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—a little like flushing a toilet,” writes Edward Ring of the California Policy Center.

A smart alternative is to build wastewater-treatment plants. Another idea is to store water in underground aquifers. We also could pursue the tried-and-true method of expanding the capacity of old-fashioned reservoirs, so that we can capture surface water during wet years and disperse it during dry ones.

We could even do all three. It won’t be cheap, but we can pay for it through bonds and user fees from farmers like me.

Farmers are willing to do their part as water conservationists. We just need government officials who are willing to do their jobs and think about the future.

Featured impage photo credit: Aaron Burden

Ted Sheely

Ted Sheely

Ted raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, onions, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm. Chairman of Horizon Growers (pistachios). Long-standing interest and investment in water availability and quality. Received Innovative Water Conservation Award. Ted volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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