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.

A sad reality of drought, many multigenerational family businesses have closed because they were unable to make ends meet under persisting conditions. A Utah dairy farmer somberly reported, “I’ve sold my dairy animals after five generations of dairying. I’m unable to grow my own feed, super-high feed costs and lowering milk prices forced me out of the business.” Similarly, a California walnut producer wrote, “We sold the family farm due primarily to severe reduction in walnut prices and stress from water issues. My husband was a fourth-generation farmer.”

Source: 2021 American Farm Bureau Federation Survey

Less water means:

  • Higher costs
  • 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.

“Average yields for the 2021 harvest season are expected to be 42% lower than in 2020”

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.

Decorative Image. Image is of dead and living orchards adjacent.

Here’s the link to the full AFBF: https://www.fb.org/market-intel/reduced-crop-yields-orchard-removals-and-herd-sell-offs-new-afbf-survey-res

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