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Commentary: Water: We can go on fighting or we can get to work

Issue Date: May 26, 2021
By Justin Fredrickson
Dry weather and low levels in Lake Oroville and other reservoirs contribute to water shortages that will force difficult decisions on farmers, ranchers and water managers.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources
Justin Fredrickson

We're in a drought again—and a bad one—and that means a lot of attention to the way farmers and ranchers use water.

Some of that attention is sympathetic, via news stories that show how farmers have had to plow down crops or sell animals they can no longer feed. On the other hand, we're also seeing a return of the familiar themes from pundits, editorial boards and advocates who see a need to lash out at agriculture—or "Big Ag," as it's often called.

That sort of rhetoric surfaced the other day before the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees California water rights. It can be frustrating to listen to the all-too-familiar arguments that arise in a terribly dry year such as this: "Farmers shouldn't grow certain crops; a commission should step in and tell farmers what to grow, where and how; if fish populations are down, it's obviously farmers' fault; we shouldn't be growing crops in a desert, etc., etc."

These arguments have been coming at farmers for decades from a small but vocal part of the public—but most Californians recognize the important contributions farms, and farm water use, make to local, national and global food supplies, to the economy and to the environment.

I think most people recognize farmer-bashing for what it is: an outdated justification for upending the state's water system at the expense of an enterprise that was appropriately deemed essential as the world dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state water board, like all of us, faces difficult decisions this year. We must make sure its decisions reflect a full and fair assessment of our current situation.

For example, there have been calls to cut already-reduced deliveries to senior water rights holders.

The reality is that water delivered to senior rights holders such as Sacramento River settlement contractors and San Joaquin River exchange contractors represents a lifeline, not only to those most senior holders but also to the rest of the system, through the built-in flexibility of water transfers.

Transferred water will be vital to make a year like this just barely survivable. Many farmers around the state stand at zero water supplies. They're making hard decisions and face a very frightening year.

The operators of water projects and government resource agencies know the system and are working closely together. Like the rest of us, they are doing their best to get through.

A year like this should be an urgent wake-up call: Our water system is too tight, too fragile, too vulnerable.

Despite the lessons of 2014 and 2015, California remains too susceptible to the threats of recurring drought and shrinking snowpack.

We used to have the luxury of fighting among ourselves, the way the water debate is often portrayed: farmers vs. environmentalists vs. urban agencies. I believe we no longer have that luxury.

It's time to move past the mentality that a solution for one use can only mean leaving another use or uses high and dry.

In a year like this, no one is wasting water. It's tight all over, and we're all just trying to get through. Like it or not, we are all in this together.

There is very clearly an urgent need—in the interest of all water users and all Californians—to come together and begin, as quickly as possible, to build a resilient system. Every type of water use would benefit.

Central to building such resilience, we simply must develop a better ability to capture and store water in wet years, to tide us through the dry years.

We need more pots of water north, more pots of water south, more pots of water underground. We also need more flexibility, collectively and connectively, north to south and east to west.

In a year such as this, Californians need to find the will to re-envision, reinvent and adapt our system. We've seen it before: California—and its farmers and ranchers—are adaptable, resourceful and tough.

But the state needs policies and institutions, processes and strategic societal investments, that help make the transition to a resilient water system.

We can go on fighting and preside over a steadily deteriorating situation, or we can get to work.

This generation of leaders will set the direction, irrevocably, for where we go from here as a state. Regardless of how some people would like to paint it, there are no villains. We must stress collaboration, not punitive measures.

It's time for leadership and vision. There is no time to waste.

(Justin Fredrickson is an environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau. 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.

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