President's message: Get ready to engage in an intense water debate

Issue Date: April 8, 2015
Paul Wenger

Get ready. The drought just became real for millions of our fellow Californians. They're going to start asking more questions about water use. For our part, farmers need to be ready to address those questions, honestly and forthrightly.

The drought became real for many of our neighbors when Gov. Brown ordered mandatory, 25 percent cuts in water use by cities and towns. People who had not heeded the previous, voluntary guidelines for reducing their water use at home and at work will now be told—not asked—to cut back. They may see parks, highway medians and other large landscapes turn brown.

As our fellow Californians pay new or more intense attention to the drought, they'll also hear the tired refrain about agriculture using 80 percent of the state's water. They will ask, "Why didn't the governor order cuts on farms?"

When we hear that question, those of us who have been living with the drought for four years—and dealing with chronic water shortages far longer than that—may be stopped in our tracks. Of course, water use has been cut on farms and ranches, with many of the state's farmers facing water-supply cuts of 60 percent, 80 percent, even 100 percent, and for a second straight year.

We'll need to make sure urban and suburban Californians understand how the water system works: that farmers are always the first to be cut back—always—and that those cuts go deeper and deeper until the water planners can no longer ignore the need to cut urban uses, too. That day has come.

And about that "80 percent" figure: We can surely cite the statistics that the majority of the water that falls on California in a given year is reserved for environmental uses or flows directly to the ocean and that, in reality, only about 40 percent of the state's water ends up on farms. The real point may be this: We devote water to growing food. Our state is no different from other states or nations in the proportion of water used for that purpose. We believe growing food to be the most fundamental need of society, the use on which the entire rest of the economy is built. Farmers know and respect the value of water, and use it carefully.

That, of course, leads to the question of crop choices. You'll read that farmers insist on growing "water guzzling" crops. Right now, almonds and rice seem to be singled out, but other crops get slapped with the label, too.

In reality, of course, farmers grow the crops they do because people want to buy them and because we can grow the crops successfully here. Many Californians probably don't realize how dynamic agricultural markets are, how cropping patterns evolve over years and decades, and about the numerous factors farmers consider when choosing crops: Will the crop grow well in my area? Can I hire enough people at the right time to harvest it? If not, can it be harvested mechanically? Does my farm have the quantity and quality of soil and water to sustain it? And, if I can grow it, can I sell it?

When people ask why we grow the crops we do, we need to be straightforward and avoid being defensive. We need to help people understand how carefully we make those decisions—as though our jobs depended on them, because they do.

Of course, it's not just our jobs that depend on those crop choices. California farmers are responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs in both rural and urban areas. We've already seen the ripple effects of idled land in layoffs at farms, packinghouses and other rural businesses. We know not only the human cost of those layoffs, but the impact on the tax base of rural counties, and what that means for schools and other services.

We need to be sure our fellow Californians also recognize the environmental values that well-managed farmland provides. Where do birds find much of their habitat on the Pacific flyway? In those much-maligned rice fields. Our farms and ranches represent habitat, open space and other environmental attributes that would disappear if they weren't there.

Not only that, but the efficiency and know-how of California farmers assures that we can grow more per acre of land—and per drop of water—than farmers elsewhere in the world. Crop production per acre-foot of water has risen 43 percent in California between 1967 and 2010.

Our growing state, national and global populations will continue to need more food and farm products, and what California farms do for the nation and world can't be easily replaced or duplicated. For example, dozens of foods taken for granted in produce aisles—wholesome and nutritious fruits, vegetables and nuts—are grown in the U.S. largely or exclusively in California.

If we don't continue to grow food and farm products in California, they'll have to be grown somewhere else—and that "somewhere" will almost certainly be a place that's not as efficient or tightly regulated as California farms are. That will affect the global environment, in terms of habitat loss in other places and the rising "carbon footprint" of importing that food back into California and the rest of the U.S. We must also recognize that water is a limited resource worldwide. That makes failing to do all we can in California to adapt to changing weather patterns while maintaining our quality of life for future generations into an ethical and moral dilemma.

This terrible drought year will test our patience, both in trying to maintain our farms and ranches and in responding to the Californians who have now discovered that the drought affects them, too. Individual farmers and ranchers must be involved in the debates about water use that will doubtless spread to many more communities this year. We must make the case for the importance of agricultural water use, and for the continuing need to build more storage and take the other steps needed to assure our state's water future. Get ready.

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