Commentary: California is no Australia, but lessons can be learned

Issue Date: December 9, 2015
By Paul Wenger
Paul Wenger
A significant amount of irrigated farmland in Australia will be fallowed forever, after the government bought water rights from farmers.

As California endures its fourth year of drought, significant attention has been given to comparisons with Australia, which was forced to extreme measures in dealing with its "Millennium Drought" between 1995 and 2008. A recent study group of legislators and representatives of labor, environmental and business organizations participated in a tour of Australia coordinated by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy. I was asked to join the group in order to provide an agricultural perspective about the drastic measures Australia undertook to respond to its 13-year drought, and potential implications for California.

First, let me set a little perspective between California and Australia. Australia basically encompasses the same land mass as our 48 contiguous states, is the driest inhabited continent in the world and has a total population of 23 million people. California's 39 million residents live in a state punctuated by a diversity of geography that runs the gamut from deserts in the south to the very wet North Coast. Our entire state is smaller than the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia's "Central Valley."

Australia's agricultural production as measured at the farm gate totals about $38 billion, compared to California's $54 billion annually, and includes a fraction of the 300 crops grown in our Central Valley alone. For its fresh water, Australia relies mainly on rain capture, which can be very heavy but sporadic. Australia receives little water from snow melt and has limited groundwater.

When faced with the realities of a sustained drought and a water infrastructure insufficient to adequately meet its needs, Australia undertook significant actions to align its water supply with core demand. To do this, the nation invested in infrastructure. It spent $6 billion on increased water storage, desalination and water recycling, and in conveyance systems to move water efficiently.

Australia also spent $4 billion to purchase water "licenses"—water rights, in our terms—from those who historically held them: farmers. A water license was defined as the amount of water a grower was entitled to from surface and/or groundwater. The government of Australia purchased water licenses from farmers, many of whom were financially ravaged from the extended drought. The result: A significant amount of previously irrigated land will be forever fallowed.

While I was in Australia, I met with agricultural leaders to get their perspective on the causes and effects of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which governs two large rivers feeding a key agricultural region. Many parallels became evident to me as a potential harbinger for California agriculture, should we fail to heed the experiences of Australia's farmers.

One of the underlying issues was that agricultural interests became fractured among different commodities and regions within the Murray-Darling region. Because the producers had been doing fairly well financially before the drought, a sense of self-reliance became their eventual downfall. As those engaged in agricultural pursuits became a smaller component of Australia's overall population, their political clout and influence waned. Many of the water rights reforms had already been underway for decades, but were quickly consummated during the intense drought.

As Australian government officials and academicians developed the MDBP, they focused solely on the daily water use of their citizens—but not the water demand to produce the food they would need each day. A person can get by with 50 gallons of water a day for drinking, showering and the like, but to produce a 1,200-calorie daily diet requires 850 to 1,200 gallons of water. When questioned about that, the answer was, "We can always import our food."

Unfortunately, I see many comparisons to California. As the sixth-largest agricultural producer in the world, California's importance as a food source is often overlooked and under-appreciated. Most Californians today, even after four years of drought, have the greatest opportunity to access high-quality food choices of any people in the world.

As California farmers and ranchers and agricultural businesses, we should take heed of the experiences of our Australian counterparts. We should not be marginalized because we have become complacent or self-reliant. With less than one-half of 1 percent of Californians directly engaged in production agriculture, we cannot allow ourselves to become fractured by commodity or region.

With the challenges of moving water effectively throughout our state and with last year's passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, we must be vigilant to protect our water rights, as they will surely continue to be attacked. The answer for California water problems is not to further divide a shrinking allocation of water, but to significantly upgrade our water supply infrastructure to accommodate the growth not only of our population, but of business, including agriculture—while maintaining a resilient environment. We must remember that the rest of the world relies heavily on the crops that grow in our fields to feed them, just as we rely upon other nations for so many imported, non-food consumer goods.

California farmers and ranchers must work together to maintain and grow our political relevance. We must maintain strong cross-commodity and regional cooperation, so we can maximize our effectiveness. California agriculture has set a high mark for the rest of the world to follow, from our ability to squeeze the most crop per drop of water and from our ability to reduce the carbon footprint of our farms and ranches.

Let's not be taken for granted but stand up and work together to defend and promote one of the richest agricultural resources in the world—California. As a California farmer, I am proud to say: We are not Australia. We are California!

(Paul Wenger is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

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