Commentary: Drought highlights need for more outreach, education

Issue Date: October 8, 2014
By Kenny Watkins
Kenny Watkins
The drought has caused reservoirs to drop to low levels, and has reinforced the need to make sure people understand the importance of water to grow food and farm products.
Photos/California Department of Water Resources

It's bad enough what farmers, ranchers and their employees have had to go through during this awful drought year: crops not planted, trees pulled, livestock herds reduced, jobs lost, rural economies weakened. On top of that, we've often found ourselves facing disapproval for growing the crops and livestock we have managed to grow.

In previous droughts, farmers were criticized for growing "low-value" crops—usually field crops. You probably remember the steady drumbeat from environmental organizations and newspaper editorial boards: "Farmers should have to pay more for water; then, they'd be forced to grow 'high-value' crops."

After the previous drought, water costs did go up and, at the same time, demand continued to increase for nut crops such as almonds, walnuts and pistachios—crops that California is uniquely able to grow. So, farmers planted "high-value" almonds, walnuts and pistachios.

And now, those crops come in for strident criticism from the same environmental groups and editorial boards: "Farmers shouldn't be planting these permanent crops; they should be growing field crops that could be idled during droughts."

Never mind that crops like almonds, walnuts and pistachios remain in tremendous demand, and that they generate billions of dollars' worth of jobs and economic activity both in rural areas and in cities, where the crops are marketed and shipped to customers around the world.

A few weeks ago, there was a lot of finger-pointing when an electric-car manufacturer decided to build a battery plant in Nevada, with people wondering why California didn't do more to attract the $5 billion facility. Well, the combined value of almonds, walnuts and pistachios last year dwarfed that—it was more than $8.5 billion, and that's just the on-farm value, not all the added value from marketing the crops. Maybe nut crops don't have the luster of a shiny, new electric car, but they have loyal customers, and orchards can't pick up and move out of state.

The other thing we've seen is the return of the old "80 percent" statement. You know how it goes: "Agriculture uses 80 percent of California's water." This is one of those "facts" that is used as a weapon; it is almost always presented as an accusation.

There are two things about this "fact" that need to be challenged. First of all, it's not true; never has been. Here's a more accurate description of how California water is allocated, provided by the California Farm Water Coalition:

"In a 'typical' year, California receives approximately 200 million acre-feet of precipitation. Much of that is consumed by native vegetation, runs to the ocean or enters the water supply as groundwater. Of the 85 million acre-feet of surface water that California actively manages, 49 percent is used for environmental purposes, 41 percent is used to grow food and fiber by farmers, while municipal and industrial users use the remaining 10 percent."

So, sure, if you just ignore all the water dedicated to the environment and focus on the water dedicated to human uses, the share for agriculture is 80 percent and the share for urban uses is 20 percent.

And that brings up the second thing that should be challenged about this "fact": Is it a bad thing that we dedicate water to food production? What's more important than that? Food production is the most basic thing that humans do—and we can grow food in California more efficiently and with higher quality than anywhere else. Having affordable food means that people have more money left over to pay for other things—like health care, quality education, buying computers and electronic devices, going to the movies, taking vacations—that power the rest of the California economy.

It's incumbent on all of us to challenge misinformation when we see it and, even more importantly, to provide accurate information about the factors that affect water supplies and use in California.

That's why I'm pleased by a project undertaken by the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom. The 13th edition of its What's Growin' On? student-focused newspaper will focus on water—the first edition to be focused on a single topic. The new issue will discuss the sources of water in California, watersheds, the California water system, irrigation technology, water quality and other topics. It will help students in 3rd through 8th grades—and their parents—develop a fuller idea of how our water system works and how farmers convert water into food and farm products.

The new What's Growin' On? will be distributed inside a number of California newspapers in 2015. Let's hope that, by then, voters will have approved a water bond to invest in more water storage and that we've had a rainy and snowy winter. But regardless, we must continually work to educate our urban neighbors about the importance of devoting water to grow food.

(Kenny Watkins is first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and chairs the board of the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.