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CFBF president's message: Mother Nature always bats last

Issue Date: February 26, 2014
Paul Wenger

The flood of media attention to the historic California drought brings no respite from the challenges our state faces this year. As with any situation, the effects will be greater for some, lesser for others, but felt by all. Every single resident of California will be affected to some degree by this ridiculous drought. I say ridiculous, because the effect our state will experience should never have been this extreme after only two years of below-normal precipitation and one record-setting drought year. A lack of action by policymakers during the last 20-plus years has put in jeopardy the future of our state and the well-being of those who call California home.

While everyone will be inconvenienced by the drought, no one will feel the brunt as farmers will. The question is: Will this drought unite farmers and ranchers behind a common threat to our survival, or will we destine ourselves to squabble over who has what and who is to blame?

Each region of the state faces its own unique water challenges, but all of us suffer from lack of attention to long-term water development.

For years, we have been asked by some to believe that "water storage" is bad and "conservation" is good. The problem is, "conservation" has been equated to stopping "waste." For example, some consider flood or furrow irrigation to be a waste of water, but water not used by crops within the root zone percolates into the soil, often helping to recharge underground aquifers. The push for "conservation irrigation," therefore, can actually contribute to our depleted aquifers. Far from being demonized, it should be recognized that agricultural irrigation has historically been responsible for helping replenish groundwater. It's ironic that many educated and well-meaning bureaucrats suggest retiring productive farm ground so it can be converted into percolation basins. More to the point, it has to be recognized that on-farm water use on highly productive soils continues to produce the food and fiber that feeds and clothes people, with other benefits to the environment.

Gains in water-use efficiency have been an incremental process that should continue everywhere it is feasible. Farmers have become very good at producing more with less, but at the end of the day, you can only "conserve" so much before you do without and reduce productivity, which equates to not meeting the needs of people. There is no way around the fact that a single scoop of ice cream currently takes at least 45 gallons of water to get to your mouth. The ice cream came from milk, which came from a cow, which drank lots of water and required food itself, in the form of pasture, alfalfa and corn. The fact of the matter is simple: People are the ultimate consumers of water. Your cell phone, car and TV took huge amounts of water to produce. All of us are the consumers of that water, not Apple, Ford, GE—or farmers!

As farmers, we have a choice: Fight among ourselves or utilize the terrible effects of this drought to rally together to change not only our future, but the future of our entire state. For too long, we have willingly fought over an unsustainable water supply dictated to us by those protecting an outdated water system in the name of conservation and environmental protection. Our current water infrastructure was designed to responsibly meet the needs of a population half our current 37.5 million and was predicated on capturing snow melt in the spring and summer for use during the year.

Many of those who are most vociferous about climate change have focused solely on combating climate change rather than adapting to its potential effects. Mother Nature is powerful and unforgiving. Species unable to adapt to changes in climatic conditions have disappeared. For mankind to strive to reduce its impact on the environment is a worthy and important cause, but for our elected leaders and those in authority to fail to plan for the coming challenges is nothing short of irresponsible and immoral.

The California drought has grabbed international attention. California farmers not only produce food and fiber for our state and nation but also for a good portion of the world, in part due to our ability to harness and use water effectively. At the same time, we have one of the most diverse, dynamic and healthy ecosystems in the world.

Two weeks ago, the president of the United States visited the San Joaquin Valley near Firebaugh, ground zero for the drought's impact. President Obama's visit was certainly as much political as it was substantive, but he came to California, recognized the drought and brought the media attention only he can bring. That's important, no matter your politics. I was honored to participate in the meeting the president held in Firebaugh. I was able to deliver a message of urgency, not just in dealing with immediate impacts but more importantly to begin to renew and rebuild a water infrastructure that has been stretched to its breaking point.

The American political process is unique and often exasperating. With those of us involved in production agriculture making up less than 1 percent of the California population, we can ill afford to allow ourselves to be divided by ideological or regional differences in search of perfect and immediate solutions. It often takes years to realize a return on the investments we make on our farms and ranches, yet for some reason many feel the political process should yield quicker results, with little time or capital invested.

We cannot let the perfect endgame be the enemy of a good start. In baseball terms, some feel we should take the opportunity afforded us by this intense drought to swing for a grand slam. The only problem is, no one is even on base yet. In Congress, we need a proposal to ease California water shortages to pass the Senate—Sen. Feinstein has proposed one—in order to get to a conference committee to be negotiated with the House proposal authored by Rep. David Valadao. It then needs to pass both the Senate and House and be signed by the president.

It is important for all of us to remember that we can accomplish more together. It's also important for our elected leaders and regulatory authorities to remember that while they are participants in this "ballgame," Mother Nature always bats last. We should be prepared or we will all lose.

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

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