WASHINGTON, April 8, 2015 – Now in the fourth year of an historic drought, the nation’s biggest agricultural producing state is mandating cities and towns reduce water usage by 25 percent. The first mandatory water reductions in the state's history should amount to a savings of approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months, according to the governor’s office. Each acre-foot can provide water for two households for one year.

But critics claim that Gov. Jerry Brown left agriculture largely “off the hook,” except for new requirements for increased reporting from agricultural water users. 

The governor’s action shows how unpredictable and “extraordinarily” risky farming in California can be, said Dave Puglia, senior vice president of government affairs at Western Growers. “While the executive order focuses on more urban water users, there’s a real sense that we don’t know what will happen next,” Puglia said. “The uncertainty about this drought and the drought’s consequences weigh heavily on the mind of the farmer. It’s hard to plan a business with no certainty of a water supply.”

Indeed, California agriculture is big business, representing not only the largest U.S. agricultural producer, but also the largest ag exporter. California’s farmers and ranchers in 2013 received $46.4 billion for their products, (compared to total U.S. output valued at $269.1 billion) which included nearly half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Total farm exports for the year exceeded $21 billion, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture, representing 14.7 percent of total U.S. ag exports. In terms of value, California's top three agricultural exports are almonds, dairy and dairy products, and wine.

California Gov. Jerry Brown seemed to champion agriculture’s interests when recently interviewed on ABC’s Sunday Talk Show, “This Week.”

“The farmers have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of land. They are pulling up vines and trees,” Brown said. “Farm workers who are (on the) very low end of the economic scale here are out of work. There are people in agriculture areas that are really suffering.”

The Governor argued that shutting off water allocations for irrigated agriculture was unnecessary because those growers are “providing most of the fruits and vegetables in America.”

"If you don't want to produce any food and import it from some other place, of course you could do that," he said. "But that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and I don't think it's needed."

However, Brown delivered a warning to many California farms with “senior water rights” who received their permits before the current system was adopted in 1914, allowing them to buy water at a fraction of the cost everyone else pays.

“Some people have a right to more water than others. That's historic. That's built into the legal framework of California," he said. "If things continue at this level, that's probably going to be examined, but as it is, we do live with a somewhat archaic water law situation.”

Little wonder then, that holders of the historic water rights are worried things may change.

“When pre-1914 water rights can be curtailed, it sends a message to others that their water rights are far less valued than they thought they were,” Puglia said.

For now, California Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent executive order mandating statewide water use restrictions includes no additional cutbacks for farmers and ranchers, but the industry “has already been cut significantly for the second straight year,” said Dave Kranz of the California Farm Bureau. Growers in the Central Valley without senior water rights will not receive any deliveries from the Central Valley federal irrigation project for the second year. Also, growers who typically receive ground water allocations from the State Water Project will get only 20 percent of requested deliveries.

“Farm water is always the first to be cut and the cut the furthest,” said Kranz.

Adam Scow, the director of Food and Water Watch California, said in a statement that much of the farmland in the western San Joaquin Valley grows water-intensive almonds and pistachios, which he said “is a wasteful and unreasonable water use, especially during a severe drought.”

He called on Brown to direct the state Water Resource Control Board to place a moratorium on the use of groundwater for irrigating crops “on toxic and dry soils” on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley. “In the two year period covering 2014-2015, the Westlands Water District is on pace to pump over one million acre feet of groundwater – more water than Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco combined use in one year,” Scow said.

In an issue brief published last year, the National Resources Defense Council said that agricultural water use could be reduced by 5.6 million to 6.6 million acre-feet per year, or by about 17 to 22 percent, without affecting productivity or total irrigated acreage.

But others disagree. A 2014 University of California Davis study estimated that the economic loss to the state in 2015 due to drought would be at least $3 billion. The drought caused a loss of approximately 17,000 jobs in 2014 and will likely cause more job losses in 2015. Additionally, about 500,000 acres were left fallow in 2014- a figure that will likely grow this year.

Western Growers’ Puglia said the agriculture industry doesn’t have much complaint about another part of the governor's order – that agricultural water users report more water use information to state regulators, increasing their ability to take action against illegal diversions and waste. In addition, the governor's April 1 action strengthens standards for Agricultural Water Management Plans submitted by large agriculture water districts and requires small agriculture water districts to develop similar plans.

In a separate action, at the end of March, Brown signed an emergency legislation dedicating $1 billion toward drought relief and water infrastructure projects, part of which is earmarked to stopping water diversion to illegal marijuana farms. The measure authorizes state fish and wildlife officials to fine growers up to $8,000 for illegally taking water. 

Puglia noted that the agriculture industry in California is consolidating as the cost of operating in the state continues to escalate. “Water cost is a big part of it,” he noted, but the “regulatory burden in California is extreme.”

To further complicate things, rainwater is being restricted from agricultural use due to Endangered Species Act protections for the Delta smelt and other fish species. Even in times of drought, the state will sporadically get large amounts of rain in short periods of time, temporarily swelling the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. However, due to environmental policies, the pumps used to collect that rainwater in storage facilities south of the Delta are not allowed to operate at available capacity.

According to a March report by Erick Johnson of The Water Agency Inc., “Layer after layer of environmental rules like the Endangered Species Act Biological Opinions for the Delta Smelt and Salmonids have caused so many pumping restrictions.”


In the last 13 months, the report says, pumps in Tracy, California, only pumped at the maximum permitted level for one day. The maximum pumping levels are set at about two-thirds of the actual capacity of the pumps in Tracy, the report noted.

The way environmental policies like the one that protects the Delta smelt have been applied “caused us to lose millions of acres of water to the ocean over the last four years, which could’ve been captured and stored,” Puglia said.  In California, “politically we love to uphold the idealism of small local, sustainable farmers, but [these kind of] policies drive them out of business.”


[This article first appeared in our April 8, 2015 Agri-Pulse newsletter. If you aren’t a subscriber or don’t download our Wednesday newsletters, you’re missing out on stories such as this one.]


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