Earlier this spring, I mentioned in a newsletter that you would likely see “farm shaming” occurring in the news and social media: attacking farmers in California for their use of water. The shaming has begun.*
Every Californian lives in a glass house where water is concerned. Without the vast, costly infrastructure that delivers water from one corner of the state to the other, our state could not support a fraction of the population it currently does, nor of its economy. A person can only throw stones at others if they live in blissful ignorance of this fact.
It’s safe to say that a majority of Californians have no idea where their water comes from. This is how folks in LA are able to talk about how farmers shouldn’t be “growing in the desert” when their own water district turned the Owens Valley into a barren wasteland. Or how San Franciscans can speak with pride about Hetch Hetchy reservoir without knowing the water in it once flowed freely through the Central Valley.
It’s also safe to say that every farmer in the state knows exactly where their water comes from, how much they use, and how much it costs. Anyone who thinks that farmers “waste” water has never talked to a farmer. Since the last drought, a majority of farmers have dramatically improved their irrigation efficiency through a variety of methods and technologies.
One of the most common stones I have seen thrown on social media is this: Farmers are making money off of water. The truth is that every business in the state is “making money off of water”. But unlike most other businesses, farmers are limited by the amount of water available to them. They work within their limits, and try to make the best use of the precious resource.
This spring, hundreds of farms across the state have had their water supplies cut dramatically or even completely. The same cannot be said of many homeowners or other types of businesses. Some farms will be able to scrape by using groundwater; others will likely file for bankruptcy and sell their land.
Another line of attack: Farm water is subsidized. It’s true that many projects that deliver water to farmers were built by the state and federal government. That water also goes to cities and towns — our entire state benefits from those “subsidies”. We also all drive on “subsidized” federal freeways.
What about the idea that farms should not be able to use “California’s water” to grow crops sold out of state or exported abroad? In addition to being problematic given our Constitutional prohibition on states governing interstate commerce, this idea flies in the face that the very reason the federal government paid for reservoirs like Shasta Lake was specifically so that California farms could grow food for other states with less ideal farming climates.
It is true that groundwater use has been poorly regulated in California, and large areas of the state have overused their aquifers. But that is rapidly coming to an end as the state implements the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The most powerful mechanism of enforcement is not government at all, but rather banks. Lenders have now “redlined” areas with challenged acquifers and are rejecting loans in those areas unless farmers can show proof of a reliable water supply. This has caused a dramatic drop in land values in many parts of the San Joaquin Valley as well as a reduction in planted acreage. Unsurprisingly, it has also caused an increase in land prices in areas with better water.
Meanwhile, suburban development continues at a rapid pace, with no suggestion that water restrictions might lead to building moratoriums. People need places to live and there is a housing shortage. Food, on the other hand, is still abundant and cheap…for now.
Going forward, droughts in California and the rest of the western states are likely to get worse. Climate change is shortening winter, raising temperatures and increasing evaporation. We have to get creative and work together to find sustainable solutions that share the pain. Throwing rocks, pointing fingers and blaming others is not going to get us there.
* — Last time around, the focus on much of the farming shaming was on Almond orchards. This time around it appears that Pistachios may be targeted. Yet one of the very reasons why farmers have been planting more pistachios lately is that they require less water than Almonds, as well as tolerating lower quality/saltier water. And as far being grown “in a desert”, Pistachios are native to Iran and are thus uniquely well-suited to growing in arid regions.