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California Must Practice Efficient Water Use

New America Media, Q&A, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Sep 19, 2009

Editor's Note: A decade-long drought in Australia has crippled agricultural production there, and should serve as a harbinger for what could happen in Califonia, which is going through its third year of drought. NAM's environment editor Ngoc Nguyen interviewed Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith, a senior research associate with the Pacific Institute's Water Program.

California is in its third year of drought, with the water shortage taking a toll on farms, including job losses. Agriculture accounts for the majority - 80 percent -- of water used in the state.

Responding to the water shortage, some farmers in the state are practicing ways to use the water they have more efficiently. If more farmers did the same, the state could shave off 17 percent in water use, according to a recent report by the Pacific Institute. NAM spoke with report co-author Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith about how to overhaul the states agricultural sector.

Your report highlights the eye-opening example of a how a decade-long drought in Australias Murray-Darling basin crippled agricultural production.

The Murray-Darling basin, their food bowl where theres livestock, dairy, rice, grain, vegetables, and grape production, has been severely impacted by drought. Rice production has fallen by 80 percent. We dont want to see that happen in California. What happened in Australia should serve as a harbinger for what could happen in California if we dont learn from some of the pitfalls and ways to respond (to drought conditions).

Australia made drastic changes in response to the drought. Pacific Institutes Executive Director Peter Gleick blogged (Wake up: Here is what a real water crisis looks like)
about some of the water policy changes, including cutting industrial water use by about a third, raising water prices, and mandating installation of low-flow showerheads and toilets. Some measures like banning hoses, washing your car, watering your garden, or filling your swimming pool would seem draconian to residents here. In terms of Californias drought, are we at this point yet?

I dont think were at this stage in California. A colleague from Australia visited here and saw green lawns, and said, You have no idea what a drought is. Australia has seen consecutive drought years, that create problems when your major source of water is reservoirs. What happens is, usually in California, if we have a dry year, reservoir levels decrease, but in a few years, in wet years, we can recover and fill back up, and make up for lost storage. In Australia, they had 12 to 13 years of continuous dry conditions. Their reservoirs are empty and, because they were primarily relying on reservoirs, they have been very vulnerable to changes in rainfall or precipitation. They are beginning to diversify their water portfolio, including desalination and recycled water.

How dire are drought conditions in California?

In California, we are in a third year of drought. In 2009, we had drought conditions because of the impacts earlier dry periods had on agriculture. At the end of the year, it was considered a dry year, but not drought. Precipitation was 86 percent of average.

Less snow pack and snow runoff means water comes earlier in the season when agriculture doesnt need it. Agriculture needs it in dry hot summer months. Thats also when demand rises. There will be greater conflicts and competition between water users - industry, people and the environment.

What has the impact been on agriculture?

There has been quite a bit written, projecting major losses in agricultural jobs and revenue. Those studies were based on models that assume a certain number of acreage will be fallowed due to drought. Its an assumption as opposed to whats actually happening on the ground.

Dr. Jeffrey Michael of the University of the Pacific has published papers looking at employment data in Tulare County he showed jobs increasing in the agricultural sector, bolstering an otherwise dismal economic picture, related to both the financial and housing crises.

We mapped the data -- agricultural jobs vs. water allocation in the last four or five years -- and we saw agricultural jobs increasing as water allocations decrease.

A lot of illegal labor force is not captured (in the state data). Half of farm labor is not documented. We can be fairly certain that theres a large number of people left out (of the state) payroll and labor market information.

Your report suggests water efficiency improvements. Could you please summarize?

The report highlights the potential for further conservation and efficiency through practices already applied by some farmers in the state and that have shown to be successful. The three different water conservation strategies are: Use different water delivery methods, or irrigate differently using improved technology like drip irrigation; More precisely irrigate through better management; Apply less irrigation water to crops that can withstand drought.

You say that if farmers were to implement these strategies, the state could save 17 percent of all the water used by agriculture, or 16 times the amount of water stored in the Hetch Hetchy Resevoir, or 19 times the water restored to the environment in the recent Delta smelt ruling. What are barriers to achieving this?

A huge one is capital -- the capital needed to install (more efficient irrigation) systems. Another is the lack of accurate data about actual water use. (The state data) is very coarse, some of it is empirical ... based on modeled estimated water use, rather than based on the agricultural sector.

How much would it cost the state to adopt these strategies?
We estimate it would cost $4 billion to implement on the ground what we have modeled.

Its a lot of money, but well be spending a lot of money (to fix the system). The system is broken. We have to try to find ways to fix it, and they all cost money.

Related Articles:

California's Disappearing Towns -- Huron May Not Be Here a Year From Now

California Farmers March for Water

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