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President's message: Water investments would help to assure essential farming jobs

Issue Date: May 5, 2021
By Jamie Johansson
Jamie Johansson California Farm Bureau President

One thing that's been re-emphasized, time and again, during the pandemic travails of the past 14 months: Farming is essential. During the coming few months, as California struggles through another drought, we'll learn whether our elected and appointed public officials feel the same way.

As farms and ranches continue to operate through the pandemic, there's been a lot of focus—understandably so—on the men and women who have worked to harvest, pack and process California food and farm products: Are they being sufficiently protected from COVID-19? Are they gaining access to vaccines?

Farm Bureau has advocated tirelessly, in every available forum, for supplies, equipment, vaccines and information to help farmers and their employees through the pandemic. We have also pointed to long-term, structural problems that need to be addressed, for example in providing affordable housing.

But an overarching, long-term problem needs to be solved to make sure farm employees can not just work safely, but can have jobs, period: water supplies.

I hope I'm proven wrong, but I fear many of the same people who have expressed concern for farm employees' welfare during the pandemic will fail to translate the same urgency to farm water shortages, and will take no notice when jobs begin to evaporate in farming and ranching communities throughout California.

Make no mistake: That is already happening. Farmers and ranchers are making hard choices about how much land to leave idle, how many animals they can feed—and how many people they can hire or retain.

The drought is only one reason for this. In California, we know there will be droughts as part of the natural rainfall cycle. We're told that climate change may already be making droughts deeper and more frequent.

But although droughts may be inevitable, water shortages aren't. That's one reason the sharp reductions in water supplies this year are so frustrating.

California voters saw this coming in 2014, when they passed the Proposition 1 water bond. They voted overwhelmingly for new water storage. Here we are, six and a half years after the bond passed, and we're still mired in process, waiting for construction. As part of preparing for future droughts, Farm Bureau will continue to press state agencies to expedite bond funding to fulfill the measure's promise of additional water storage.

We're also working with legislators who want to use part of the state government's sudden and unexpected budget surplus to pay for short-term projects that could address drought impacts, to ensure those dollars bring true relief.

At the federal level, we have an opportunity in the infrastructure package being debated in Congress. Farm Bureau is seeking substantial improvements to the package that would beef up its support for water supply infrastructure.

The California Farm Bureau helped organize a coalition of Western agricultural groups and water agencies—some 200 strong—that has taken the lead in advocating for water infrastructure as Congress works on the Biden administration proposal.

To avoid water shortages during future droughts, California and the West must adapt by building more storage, aboveground and underground, to take advantage of rain and snow when it does fall. Just think about how much better shape we could be in now, had we been able to capture and store more of the precipitation that dropped on us during the flood winter of 2017.

Building more Western water infrastructure would help ensure the region's water future and would generate thousands of jobs. Beyond that, it would secure the future of threatened jobs that exist now—such as those on California farms and ranches.

It's time for state and federal policymakers to make clear they consider farming and ranching essential by providing what's essential for farming and ranching: water.

As the drought wears on, those policymakers are going to be hearing from well-funded and influential activist groups that see farming not as essential, but as expendable. The groups will demand that water be directed away from farms, ranches and rural economies. They will complain about farmers' crop choices. They will insist that California can make do with the water it now has, if only people would stop farming certain crops, or in certain regions—or both.

That's what happens when a resource becomes short: People begin grasping for a bigger share of the pie. What we need, of course, is a bigger pie. That's what Farm Bureau has advocated, consistently, while also encouraging more efficient water use in agricultural, urban and environmental settings.

By their actions, elected and appointed government officials are going to show us what they truly believe. Is California farming essential, or is it expendable?

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

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