The war in Ukraine and all the global unrest it is causing has focused American’s attention on just how uncertain a world we inhabit.
Inflation was already wreaking havoc on family budgets and now gas prices are also skyrocketing.
Which is exactly why our government should be doing everything it can to reduce reliance on foreign sources for our basic needs, especially food.
Unfortunately, that is the exact opposite of what is happening.
Through out-of-balance regulatory policies and a failure to prioritize western farming, our government is putting our safe, affordable, domestic food supply at risk.
Over 80% of our country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown west of the Rockies and simply cannot be moved elsewhere. Without that supply, Americans will see shortages at the store, even higher prices, be forced to rely more heavily on increasingly unstable foreign sources, or all of these at the same time.
When you make a salad, have fruit for breakfast, eat a hamburger with cheese, or put tomato sauce and garlic on a pizza, odds are that at least some of those products came from California.
But without a reliable water supply, that farmland simply cannot produce what our country needs.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In some western states, the government is holding on to existing water supply, rather than release it to farms to grow food. In California, we must move more quickly to build and repair infrastructure that will help us store more water in wet years for use in dry ones like this one. And in general, water policy has become unbalanced in ways that penalize the farms trying to produce our food supply.
Farmland without a water supply increases the risk to our food supply.
California farmers are doing their part and have reduced water use by double digits since 1980. Throughout the West, farms are also important in the battle against climate change because crop production helps remove carbon dioxide from the air. If things continue the way they are, our government is essentially creating deserts instead of food production, which will only perpetuate the cycles of drought and wildfires we’d like to avoid.
Food price increases in 2022 are now expected to exceed those observed in 2020 and 2021. Without changes in water policy, it will continue to get worse.
It has never been more important that U.S. consumers insist on domestically grown food in our stores.
California’s water supply continues to face serious challenges and nowhere is the evidence clearer than on the farms that grow our food. Some of the most critical shortages expected this year extend from the Klamath Basin and Scott Valley, near the Oregon border, to Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. This 450-mile stretch includes some of the most productive farmland on the planet, where the ongoing drought threatens thousands of farms.
And it’s not just farmers who will suffer the consequences of vanishing water supplies. Consumers also face uncertainties when it comes to the food they buy. It’s hard to imagine empty shelves at the grocery store but the evidence of food shortages is already here in the form of higher prices.
In the Scott Valley an unprecedented water curtailment by the State Water Resources Control Board is aimed at reducing the use of irrigation water from both the Scott River and the area’s groundwater basin. Unlike most of California, this area is not served by the large state and federal water projects, nor does it have any reservoirs. The water in the Scott River and underground wells is the sole supply for these farmers on their 30,000 acres of irrigated land, located within a 512,000-acre watershed. This mountain valley primarily produces alfalfa and grass hay, pasture, grain, and cattle. Besides two organic dairies, beef production is either organic or conventional pasture-based for popular markets.
And unlike other areas of the state experiencing critically overdrafted groundwater basins, the Scott Valley basin is designated a “moderate priority,” with a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) recently completed for SGMA and submitted to CDWR for approval. Despite this concerted effort, farmers in the area are wondering why another State agency is ignoring their GSP strategy and is forcing them to cut all groundwater use as part of the surface water curtailments on the Scott River.
Retired local watershed consultant, Sari Sommarstrom, said the inclusion of all agricultural wells in this drought emergency order appears to be a new extension of the State Water Board’s water rights enforcement powers. – an action that other well users in the state should be aware of. The agency asserts that this severe curtailment is needed to protect Coho salmon, a species listed as threatened under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, from going extinct.
“If minimum instream flow targets designed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to protect salmon are not attained each month, all ag water diversions – under both junior and senior water rights – will be cut back 100%. A 30% reduction option is available for well users through negotiation but is not guaranteed. Many irrigators fear the permanent loss of family farms this year if no irrigation is allowed.” Scott Valley organic rancher Gareth Plank adds, “It’s important to know that a 30% water curtailment translates into a 90% income reduction.Farming in a region with a short growing season necessitates utilizing 100% of those precious frost-free days.”
Scott Valley (Source: UCANR/Thomas Harter)
Further, hydrologic modeling done by UC Davis water experts shows the target flow the Board is trying to achieve with these draconian cutbacks could not be met even with zero irrigation.
Sommarstrom, who helped create the Scott River Water Trust as a win-win option for fish and farmers, commented: “The California Water Code requires ‘reasonable’ decisions among competing water uses, yet the State Board is asking for the beneficial use of water for fish to almost entirely supersede the beneficial use for agriculture, which is not ‘reasonable’. And the Public Trust Doctrine seeks a ‘balance’ of uses, yet this curtailment is not a balance.”
The Scott River, she said, “currently represents the largest Coho population in the Klamath River system with an annual average of about 800 adults, similar to estimates for the Scott made by CDFW back in the 1960s and a significant improvement over 20 years ago. Its trend does not indicate any probable risk of “extinction”.
“CDFW agrees that local restoration efforts have helped lead to this significant increase in the salmon population,” leaving her questioning the Coho population rationale as the necessity for the State Water Board’s unprecedented measures in the Scott River watershed.
Plank added, “It’s astounding that after so many years of collaborative efforts with their corresponding successes that the state would want to blow it all up with an ill-conceived draconian plan.”
This year is going to be rough for farmers throughout the state. In situations like this, California’s leadership must take into account the dire situation for farmers with few options and even less water when they’re making decisions that could end farming for thousands of people and the rural communities in which they live.
The highly respected Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a report this week that provides guidance and recommendations on water-related spending by the Governor and the State Legislature. The report cites drought-related spending priorities from the past as well as current proposals, and makes a number of recommendations contrary to the current direction of California’s executive and legislative leadership.
Flooded recharge ponds, San Joaquin Valley (Source: PPIC)
In short, the LAO says that the current, $750 million drought response spending proposal does not address the immediate needs of the drought because it won’t result in an immediate increase in the water supply or in a reduction in water use.
“The LAO report shows While the Governor has presented his $750 million package as being for drought response, most of the proposed activities would not address conditions this summer and fall. This is because the majority of the activities would not result in an immediate increase in water supply or reduction in water use, or respond to emergency needs.”
In contrast, according to the report, “the majority of the proposed activities would focus on longer‑term efforts that might improve the State’s and local communities’ abilities to respond to future droughts. Specifically, both the infrastructure projects that would be funded in urban and small communities, as well as many of the water conservation initiatives and habitat improvement projects, likely would take at least a year and perhaps multiple years to implement.”
Preparing for the future is always a good idea. That’s why smart individuals have both a checking and a savings account. While the LAO praises the Governor for long-term drought resilience, its report highlights the lop-sided priorities where water storage projects account for only $30 million in proposed spending, or about six percent of the total.
“As shown in Figure 2, the Governor dedicates only $30 million from his new proposal for water storage projects. These funds would be used for groundwater recharge projects related to implementing local groundwater management plans in accordance with SGMA. In the context of the changing hydrology described above, this is not a particularly large level of spending.”
Groundwater storage projects also provide benefits beyond the obvious, such as developing both built and natural infrastructure such as canals, flood bypasses, and designated recharge basins—including farm fields—to direct runoff and floodwaters onto land where it can percolate into the ground to be used later. In addition to potentially restoring some existing groundwater deficits (and mitigating associated negative impacts) and increasing the water supply upon which farmers and residents can draw during dry periods, such projects often have the co‑benefit of reducing flood risk. As such, increasing available groundwater storage and opportunities to capture water runoff in managed aquifer recharge projects might merit additional investments beyond what the Governor proposes.
“The Legislature could also consider a package that provides comparatively more funding for groundwater recharge and storage projects, given their potential to help increase water supply, address groundwater deficiencies, and improve flood control.”
The LAO report has it right. More emphasis on capturing water during wet years and getting it into storage, is the most effective way to address immediate drought needs and dry years in the future. Both agricultural and urban water users have made great strides over the decades in water conservation.
Shifting the focus of water policy and project financing toward more efficient stormwater capture and using State surplus and federal infrastructure dollars is the right choice at the right time.
The traditional Thanksgiving celebration is centered around the blessings of harvest. Farmers have an obvious connection because of their year-long efforts to grow the food that we all bring home to our families. Like most Americans, we are thankful for the food on our plates and the people who make it possible.
This Thanksgiving will be a bigger challenge for a lot of families because of higher food prices and fewer choices at the store. According to the Consumer Price Index, food prices in general have been 4.6 percent higher since September of 2020. Meat prices rose the most, up 12.6 percent, followed by fish and other seafood at a 10.7 percent increase and higher prices for fruits and vegetables and other grocery staples.
“Food prices, along with prices of a lot of other goods, are rising and that means Thanksgiving dinner, along with all of our other meals, are more expensive than they were a year ago,” said Purdue Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Joseph Balagtas, on the news outlet wlfi.com in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Price increases are also affecting food banks and pantries. According to the Marin Independent Journal, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank has seen an 80 percent increase in the prices they pay for poultry and other items they stock for underserved communities.
According to the Marin IJ, approximately 60% of the food the nonprofit distributes is fresh fruits and vegetables. For the first quarter this year, the food bank is about $400,000 over budget on produce, and about $75,000 on eggs.
Connecting the dots between the food bank shortages and local farmers, the Marin County Agricultural Commissioner said that water supply shortages due to the drought have resulted in reduced acreage of some farm crops. He encouraged residents to buy local to help maintain the viability of the county’s agricultural community.
Water shortages this year caused a steep decline in the number of acres in California planted to processing tomatoes. Between January 18 and May 26, the wholesale price of tomato paste rose 31 percent, and crushed tomatoes rose 22 percent. That’s important for two reasons. Processed tomatoes are used in a large number of foods we buy, from ketchup to salsa to spaghetti sauce, as well as soups, stews, and many other foods found in restaurants and at the grocery store.
Secondly, it is important because California grows more processing tomatoes than any other state in the nation. The No. 2 state is Indiana, which in 2020 grew 389,000 tons of processing tomatoes. That same year, California grew over 12 million tons, or 30 times the production of the Hoosier State because, like most other states, Indiana simply doesn’t have the acreage or climate to come close to the production that’s possible in California. What happens to all those products you buy every day if California can’t produce the amount of tomatoes it does now? You can expect shortages, or higher prices, or less safe imports or all three.
Other examples of fresh fruit and vegetables grown in greater abundance in California are grapes (17 times the production of No. 2, Washington), peaches (6 times the production of No. 2, South Carolina), and lettuce (almost 3 times the production of No. 2, Arizona).
California grows food in greater abundance than anywhere else in the U.S. because we have better soils and the only Mediterranean climate in North America. Most other states face more significant weather extremes, higher altitudes, oppressive humidity, and in some cases, too much water, which limits their ability to grow the same kinds of crops in the quantities that come from California.
Because California is a global leader in food safety, reliability, diversity, quality, and abundance, our leaders should be doing everything possible to support farmers here in California.
We’re already aware that supply chain issues have led to shortages and higher prices at the grocery store, and it only makes sense to keep that chain as short as possible. Imagine a future where much of our food is sitting in container ships off the coast of Los Angeles, waiting to be unloaded while prices at the grocery store rise and the quality of the food on-board declines. Local, California-produced food gives us the assurance that we’re not depending on other states or countries to grow the things we want here.
Politics, more than weather, affects the amount of water farmers have to grow our food. We must ensure that our water supply infrastructure is operating as efficiently as possible to meet the critical health, safety, and nutritional needs of all Californians.
The infrastructure bill signed recently by President Biden includes $3.2 billion to repair and upgrade aging infrastructure. There is another $1.5 billion for new storage projects, including groundwater storage and floodplain management. It’s a start but more needs to be done at the State level to assure consumers that our farms have the water needed to avoid future food shortages and unaffordable price increases.
Thanksgiving is a time to look back and appreciate all that we have. California does many things well, which is why it is the fifth largest economy in the world. Agriculture is a big part of that and, as Californians, we’re fortunate that our farmers can grow almost everything we need and in quantities that are the envy of the world. But it takes water to do that and with the right support from our elected leaders, farming in California will continue to lead the world in food safety, reliability, diversity, quality, and abundance.
That’s something for which we can all be thankful.
So here we are again, California. We’re coming through another dry year and watching the sky, hopeful that Mother Nature will give us a reprieve.
We’ve all had a bad year, but everyone needs to buckle up because some of the biggest consumer impacts are just now showing up. Farmers, many of whom received none of their promised water allotment this year were forced to grow less of the healthy, safe, diverse food supply our families rely on. Just trying to make it through the year, most farmers had to either fallow land, focus only on the highest value crops or a combination of both. Price increases and decreased availability of some foods are hitting the markets now, just as we’re all making shopping lists for all our favorite holiday foods. What will next year bring? There are already rumblings that farms will start the year with a 0% allocation of promised water.
It doesn’t have to be this bad. California has weathered multi-year droughts as far back as data has been recorded and still been able to deliver water to farms, people, and the environment.
What is preventing California from meeting water needs now?
Of course, we’re in a drought, but there is much we could be doing to help mitigate the worst of the drought impacts on people, farms and the environment.
Our government has been slow to adjust to climate change
Climate scientists have been telling us for some time that our changed weather pattern is here to stay. We are seeing more precipitation in the form of rain instead of snow in the Sierras, drier dry years and wetter wet years. In order to adjust to these boom-or-bust water years, we must be able to store it when we get it.
If Sites Reservoir had been built, we’d have nearly one million acre-feet of water available to help reduce the impacts of this year’s drought.
But there is much more we can and should do apart from multi-year projects like Sites. Restoring flood plains and building recharge ponds is critical. It not only captures surface water, but holds it, allowing us to recharge groundwater aquifers, and also helps prevent flooding and rockslides.
We are simply not ready to adequately capture water from big storms such as in 2019 when eighteen trillion gallons of rain fell in California just in the month of February, or the atmospheric river that soaked the state in October of this year.
Making these adjustments could dramatically enhance our ability to meet California’s water needs. We just need the political will to make it happen.
State and Federal agencies want to revert to old, outdated operating rules for 2022
Over the past decade, science has taught us that keeping our ecosystem and fish populations healthy requires us to take a holistic approach to water management. Rather than only considering the amount of water in our rivers and streams, we’ve learned that we must also improve habitat, increase food supply and control predators. And in 2019, we finally abandoned decision making based on arbitrary calendar dates and began using real-time monitoring because fish don’t check the date on their iPhones, they respond to real-time changes in the ecosystem that governs their lifecycle.
And to be clear, we discarded the outdated ways of doing things because they weren’t working. Fish continued to decline throughout the decade that the ineffective rules were in place.
We already know that abandoning the holistic approach to managing our environment won’t help fish. Reverting to an outdated system also removes important operational flexibility and delivers even less water to farmers. Proposals from officials at the Bureau of Reclamation and the State of California put food production third or fourth in line for getting water. And what’s even worse, is that farmers wouldn’t know what water they will have to work with until after planting decisions must be made.
All this new plan would do is guarantee decades more conflict and litigation.
Voluntary Agreements are currently stalled
Our biggest hope for common sense water regulation remains the Voluntary Agreements. These agreements would allow local stakeholders, through a collaborative process, to decide how to best use the available water in their area and base all decisions on the latest science.
To make these agreements happen, already struggling farmers are willing to give up even more water because the result would be a holistic approach to protecting native species and enhancing fish and wildlife habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta and its tributaries, which would be good for all Californians.
Unfortunately, after years of negotiation and work throughout both the Brown and Newsom administrations, the state has chosen to walk away from talks with five water agencies operating projects on tributaries to the San Joaquin River. We appreciate how complicated the remaining issues are, including how to navigate water rights that precede the State’s oversight versus state and federal control. However, we hope all sides can find a way to work this out. Without the Voluntary Agreements, we will continue to limp along under a top-down regulatory system that cuts the locals out of key decisions and over the last decade has been making things steadily worse for fish, farms and people. Getting the Voluntary Agreements right is a critical step towards a more secure California water future and worth fighting for.
The bottom line is our state and federal governments have not done their jobs. Our infrastructure is old and decaying and outdated notions on how to protect endangered fish have clearly failed. Rather than embrace the future with new science, adaptive management, local decision-making, creating new water supplies and adapting to our new weather patterns they remain locked into old and destructive ways of doing things. Their only solution is to demand more and more from water users, and we simply have no more to give.
If the state and federal governments don’t change their way of doing things now, California farmers simply will not be able to provide the diverse food supply to which we are accustomed.
Maintaining a healthy, safe, local food supply must be a priority for California and the nation
Since 1980 California farmers have reduced water usage by double digits. But installing all the expensive drip irrigation in the world doesn’t help if there’s no water flowing through it.
Cutting farm water supplies too low or increasing the cost to unreasonable levels could cause more problems than it solves.
If the state continues on its path to abandon California farmers, we will all suffer.
Less water means:
More land fallowing
Farms sold off to institutional interests
Driving out family-owned operations
All of which is the opposite of what Californians say they want.
Whatever farms remain will have no choice but to plant crops that provide the highest return and those are usually permanent crops. Tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, melons, sweet corn and much of the rest of California’s diverse seasonal produce will decline, leaving consumers holding the bag with higher prices and more imports from countries that don’t have the same food and worker safety laws that we have in California.
The farmers who grow our food are our neighbors. As Californians, they care about their communities and the environment. And the products they grow meet the strictest food and worker safety standards anywhere in the world. Much of the food grown on California farms can’t be replaced by trying to increase production in other areas of the country. Our unique soil and climate make California the most productive farmland in the U.S., and that makes our food production a national security issue. Squeezing out California food production will result in less availability and higher prices at the grocery store and imported food often from countries that have less stringent safety standards than we do here at home.
You cannot just move California food production to other states.
Most other states face more significant weather extremes, higher altitudes, oppressive humidity, and in some cases, too much water, which limits their ability to grow the same kinds of crops in the quantities that come from California.
For example, California grows 30 times more processing tomatoes than the No. 2 state, Indiana, because we’re more efficient food producers. The same is true for many other foods, including those from the No. 2 states in the chart to the left. And chemical inputs are less in California because diseases, mildew, and other pests are less prevalent compared to other states.
CFWC recently released two short videos in a series aimed at educating the public on ways the new bi-partisan infrastructure package is aimed at investing in California’s water supply. The recent drought is showing areas where California’s water supply resilience is failing.
The bi-partisan infrastructure bill gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help promote drought resiliency, adjust to climate change, protect the environment, mitigate wildfires, maintain a safe, healthy, local food supply and ensure communities have the water they need to run their homes and power their businesses.
Watch the videos
Capture water in wet years to use when it’s dry
It will expand our ability to capture both surface and groundwater in wet years for use in dry ones. Climate change is bringing us drier dry years, wetter wet years. We must capture more water during times of excess for use in times of scarcity. Storage projects large and small will improve water supply, expand flood control, improve downstream water quality and provide ecosystem benefits.
The infrastructure package will fix our existing water storage and conveyance which is crumbling and in desperate need of repair. The system of pipes, canals and other infrastructure we rely on to deliver water to our taps is more than 50 years old and failing. Improving our water supply doesn’t help anyone if we can’t deliver it.
Improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires
It will help improve forest health and watershed management. Clean, reliable water supplies start with snow and rain in our upper watersheds. Poorly managed forests reduce Mother Nature’s ability to deliver winter storms to rivers, streams, and reservoirs.
Water supply infrastructure for farms, food, and people
It is important to protect the availability of a safe, healthy, local food supply. More than 80% of our domestic fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown west of the Continental Divide.California farmers have decreased water use by double digits since 1980 and still, the state has been forced to completely eliminate water supplies for thousands of family farms this year. If we fail to fix this problem, it will mean less locally grown food in our grocery stores and restaurants and dependence on more imported foods, which are often not grown under the same safety standards as California farm products.
And it will ensure small, rural and disadvantaged communities have access to clean water. In California, nearly one million people lack access to clean drinking water, with most of them living in disadvantaged or underserved communities. When drought hits, they are among the first to lose water.