Recently, thousands of farm workers and their supporters hit the road in California’s Central Valley to raise awareness of water shortages in the region that are threatening the livelihoods and communities that rely heavily on irrigated crops. The farmers’ most controversial target, arguably, is the Delta smelt. This small fish has drawn judicial intervention and federal action on its behalf, limiting water withdrawals to maintain a smelt-friendly environment in the Delta. While the smelt protections have been an issue, 2009 presents a bigger challenge. This is the third straight year of drought in California, and the continuing problem of the state’s complex water allocation system, one that that discourages conservation on the part of those with first rights to the water. Statewide, as California struggles to find a balance between diminished supply and increasing demand, much of the finger-pointing targets farmers. California’s agricultural sector takes 80 percent of the state’s total water withdrawals, runs the complaint, yet comprises only 7 percent of the state’s economy. But for the workers who make their living in this industry, lack of water means lack of income.
So the frustration and concern of workers in production agriculture is certainly understandable. Still, California’s rich agricultural industry developed with a heavy reliance on supplemental water – perhaps no major issue when water is plentiful. When water is scarce, however, it seems particularly ill-advised to have such a water-intense industry in a water-stressed area. But the answer to California’s water woes will not be found in pitting sides against one another.
Agriculture and the environment need not be opposing forces. A robust agricultural economy requires a healthy environment, and likewise, a clean environment (assuming it includes humans, who need food) requires a sustainable agricultural production system. Likewise, rural and urban communities are not really on such different sides. If crops fail for lack of water, or if the agricultural industry in California contracts significantly, a rise in food prices is a likely result, and this is a time when many families can ill afford an increase. Both populations want the same thing: the ability to put food on the table and carry out their day-to-day activities.
It’s important, then, that all parties work together to address the very real concerns that the drought has brought to the fore. Still, the present drought situation should be viewed as an opportunity to reinvent California’s agriculture towards a more sustainable production system suited to the local environment – productive and profitable, but less water-intense in areas where water is not abundant.
Some may think that government intervention is the best way to address this need. California’s water history suggests that the reverse is true. Excessive government intervention in the form of restrictions on trading and barriers to transferring water rights encourage a “use-it-or-lose-it” mode of operation in terms of water withdrawals. State and federal subsidies or tax breaks create a pricing structure that is highly politicized, and does not significantly reward conservation, particularly in the agricultural sector.
There are a number of approaches that water users could take to decrease demand, but until water trading systems are feasible, and until water pricing is responsive to supply and demand, the dialogue is not likely to advance beyond finger pointing and marches. Californians deserve more forward motion in an overall water management strategy.