Water: The high price of cheap

Central Valley farms come at a cost for dry California

Sarah Gardner Feb 18, 2015
Water: The high price of cheap

Central Valley farms come at a cost for dry California

Sarah Gardner Feb 18, 2015

In California, as in many states, the biggest water users are farmers. Almost 80 percent of the water used by Californians (not including, for example, water released to keep rivers at flows liveable for fish) goes to agriculture.

That’s in part because the state’s ranchers and farmers haven’t taken water for granted, holding hard to water rights handed out on a “first-come, first-served” basis long before there were 38 million people in the state. But if drought persists and there’s just not enough water to go round, what happens?

Between the Central Valley, some coastal areas and the Imperial Valley on the Mexican border, California grows roughly half the fruits, nuts and veggies Americans eat. The Central Valley, much of it irrigated, is at the heart of it. It’s farming on steroids.

The region, bigger than nine states, churns out everything from canned tomatoes to chardonnay grapes to citrus. Not to mention all the almonds. Each almond requires a gallon of water. And the million-plus dairy cows in the valley each drink a bathtub of water every day.  

Some of this production takes place in counties lucky to get eight inches of rain a year. That’s what Phoenix gets.

“When you think about California without water, there’s not a whole lot of agricultural potential there,” says Andrew Novakovic, an agricultural economist at Cornell University. “But like the rest of the West, and even more so in the Central Valley, you throw in a little water and it becomes an incredibly fertile, incredibly productive area.”

But water is the key; cheap water and lots of it. A herculean system of government-built dams, canals and pipelines carries melted snowpack from the Sierra Nevadas on the eastern edge of the valley, down to the hot, dusty flatlands below.

The snowpack is at near-record lows. When that happens, California’s “first-come, first served” water rights leaves the “last-served” staring at dry taps. Even in wetter years, the water supply is oversubscribed.

“There literally are more water rights to more acre feet of water than there is water available,” says Phil Garone, associate professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus.

California is by far the country’s top agricultural producer, but it’s hardly a farm state. Agriculture accounts for only 2 percent of California’s GDP.

“If you’re driving between cities ,you’ll see a lot of agriculture,” says Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. “But if you look at economic production per acre or per acre foot of water, agriculture is very, very small compared to most urban uses of water and land.”

In a persistent drought, Lund says, farming in the Central Valley would inevitably shrink. But he and other researchers wondered what was the worst that could happen. So they computer-modelled a seven-decade megadrought. The results were surprising. 

“What the model does, it says, well, the urban areas, they have a very, very high willingness to pay for water,” Lund says. Cities and their residents will have to conserve, but they will have water.

 The model shows water deliveries to farms and ranches shrinks 25 percent. Irrigated cropland in the Central Valley plummets. Some farming communities die. The environment suffers. But farming survives. 

In fact, agriculture loses just 10 percent of economic production. “It sounds really disastrous to lose half the water in California,” Lund says. “And in some places it definitely would be. But the overall economy and our overall civilization really stays around.”

That’s partly because it doesn’t take a lot of water shifting from farmers to cities to satisfy urban needs, says Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. After all, plants and livestock require a lot of water. Farmers don’t talk in gallons, they talk in acre feet, Sumner says. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.

“Think of gallon jugs filling football field after football field. And think of what we do with it. We pour it on the ground.”

The mega-drought model carries several assumptions, including efficient water trading and urban conservation. It also assumes farmers will adapt to changing conditions. That’s already happening in the Central Valley.

Farmers are drip-irrigating fields instead of flooding them. They’re ditching low-value crops, like cotton,for more lucrative crops,  like almonds. Farming, after all, is a business.

“So when a farmer is short on water they’re going to say, well, I’d like to have more water but the water I have I’m going to make the most profit from it that I can,” Lund says.

In the Central Valley, that can also mean “value-added” agriculture. Bolthouse Farms is doing that with carrots. One of its products is “Kids Veggie Snackers” — colorful packets of baby carrots with a pouch of seasoning like chili lime or ranch.  

“You can literally snack a vegetable anywhere, anytime,” says Todd Putman, Bolthouse’s chief marketing officer.

Bolthouse is owned by Campbell Soup and farms up to 30,000 acres of carrots in California. The company’s square-mile facility in Bakersfield processes 2 billion pounds of fresh carrots a year.

“We’re lucky that carrots don’t require a lot of water, versus citrus and pistachios,” Putman says. But Bolthouse grows carrots in other parts of the country and eastern Canada, too.  “That diversifies our growing regions,” he says. “And we’re trying to do more and more of that to anticipate any drought threat.”

Michael McMaster, a third-generation farmer who grows citrus in Tulare County, has already felt the full force of the current drought. This year, he didn’t receive a drop of irrigation water from the federally run water project he depends on. He lost most of his crop as a result.

“And what little we have left is tiny., “McMaster says. “I mean, the fruit that’s remaining is too small to market.  So we’re looking at pretty much a total loss for this season.”

One in four jobs in Tulare County depend on growers like McMaster staying in business, according to the local farm bureau. McMaster says the United States could import all its fresh citrus, but asks at what cost? “We provide some of the safest produce in the world, at a reasonable price, and once we’re gone, it will be hard to bring it back,” he says.

This season, McMaster managed to keep his trees alive only by buying surplus water from a district with more senior water rights than his. He paid eight times his normal price, roughly what some city dwellers in California pay.

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