Commentary: News coverage of farm water use starts to evolve


Issue Date: April 22, 2015
By Dave Kranz
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger talks about agricultural water use with reporter Adam Christy of Sacramento television station KXTV. Farm Bureau representatives have spoken with dozens of media outlets in the three weeks since Gov. Brown issued mandatory water use restrictions for California cities and towns.
Photo/Dave Kranz

The past three weeks have been trying times for many California farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations, as they have responded to a barrage of mostly negative comments in traditional media and social media regarding the use of water by agriculture. As California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger told one reporter, many farmers felt as though they had "a target on their backs" while newspaper editorial writers, bloggers, think-tank pundits and others focused their attention—and criticism—on the use of water to grow food.

The coverage has slowly become slightly more balanced in some media, but it didn't start out that way. The tsunami of coverage began on April 1, when Gov. Brown issued mandatory water-use restrictions for California cities and towns. The governor noted that mandatory restrictions for farms and ranches weren't needed, because agricultural water supplies had already been cut deeply.

But that didn't keep any number of pundits from weighing in with scathing reviews of the governor's action, scolding him for not requiring cuts to "Big Ag," which they incorrectly claimed "uses 80 percent of the state's water."

In the days immediately following the governor's announcement, CFBF leaders and spokespeople gave dozens of interviews—more than 30 in the first 48 hours after the announcement. County Farm Bureaus also responded to media, as did individual farmers and leaders of other agricultural organizations.

Eventually, after the initial tsunami passed, a number of reporters and editorial writers began looking more critically at the assertions made about farm water, and have begun—gradually, partially—to correct the record.

Newspaper editorial boards in farming regions were among the first to question the "conventional wisdom" being repeated in many news stories about agricultural water use.

"Anyone who thinks ag is the villain in this drama hasn't been in farm country lately," wrote the Chico Enterprise-Record editorial board.

The newspaper pointed out that Gov. Brown had ordered an initiative to remove 50 million square feet of lawn in the state.

"That sounds like a lot to ask of people, until you convert it to acres. It's a bit under 1,150 acres. Ag, by contrast, fallowed 400,000 acres last year, and is expected to leave twice that much barren this year," the editorial continued.

Another Sacramento Valley newspaper, the Appeal-Democrat in Marysville, published two editorials discussing the supposed 80 percent of water used by agriculture.

"Some bloggers would interpret that as the ag industry hogging most of the water, but the more accurate interpretation is that we all allocate most of our water use for feeding ourselves and a good share of the rest of humanity. How would you change that?" the newspaper asked, noting that the "80 percent" figure leaves out the water dedicated to the environment.

The Modesto Bee, Imperial Valley Press and Salinas Californian all published editorials or columns defending agricultural water use, and the Visalia, Woodland and Salinas papers each reprinted Paul Wenger's column on farm water from the April 8 issue of Ag Alert®.

But it wasn't only newspapers in farming regions that defended agricultural water use; big-city publications jumped in, too.

In an editorial titled, "Down on the farm, plenty of sacrifice already," U-T San Diego contrasted the differing impacts of water shortages on urban and farm water users.

"There is little real or lasting harm in allowing urban lawns to brown a bit, except perhaps homeowners' lost pride in their lawn-care handiwork," its editorial said. "But for farmers, the loss of water means the loss of significant hard-earned income, perhaps even the loss of livelihood."

The Wall Street Journal titled its editorial "California's Farm-Water Scapegoat," and pointed out how environmental legislation and regulation have constrained water supplies in the state: "The reality is that farm water has already been rationed for more than two decades by the ascendant green politics, starting with the 1992 federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act."

Gov. Brown and members of his administration have remained steadfast in explaining why his order did not include additional supply reductions for agriculture, and of the importance of the state's farms and ranches.

In a commentary published in The Sacramento Bee, Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin wrote, "Agriculture is the economic engine of rural California, and the entire state enjoys the variety of safe, nutritious food that California farmers produce. There are many gallons of water, applied by a farmer, behind each of our meals."

Cowin also rejected calls made by some bloggers and opinion writers for the state to begin dictating crop choices by forbidding production of what the opinion writers inevitably described as "water-guzzling crops."

"It is not the proper role of the state to tell farmers what to grow," he wrote.

Such encouraging words are being published more frequently now, but news media and social media continue to thrum with criticism of farmers, ranchers and the way they use water. Farm Bureau will remain active in communicating on this issue, as will other agricultural organizations.

The most powerful voices will be those of individual farmers and ranchers who are willing to tell their stories to reporters, write letters to the editor, respond on social media and otherwise engage in what's likely to be a year-long discussion of how Californians use water, and why. Only by participating in this discussion can farmers and ranchers assure that the full story is told.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert and manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation Communications/News Division. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

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