When a profoundly important resource like water is no longer abundant, prioritizing where water goes becomes challenging.
The California Assembly is considering legislation that would punish people for over-using water during droughts. The bill, however, does not differentiate between water “needs” and water “wants.”
Specifically, food producers and municipalities would not be given priority over the desire for a verdant lawn and lush flower beds. This oversight is dangerous and may have a significant effect on the state to feed and house itself long-term.
The authors of AB 460 propose that, “Any person or entity that violates an interim relief order issued by the board is liable for a civil penalty not to exceed the sum of the following: (A) Ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for each day in which a violation occurs. (B) Five thousand dollars ($5,000) for each acre-foot of water diverted in violation of the interim relief order.”
The State Water Resources Control Board is called out as needing to have more regulatory authority to force the state’s residents to abide by orders requiring a decrease in water use.
In a 2021 emergency declaration, Gov. Newsom called on Californians to reduce their water use by 15 percent compared to 2020. After the summer of 2021, water use had been reduced by 5 percent.
At the end of 2022, the State Water Resources Control Board extended the ban on wasteful water uses through 2024. Among the water uses identified as wasteful are the use of decorative fountains without a recirculation pump, washing vehicles without an automatic shut-off, and maintaining lawns rather than replacing them with “climate-appropriate vegetation.”
While the state has endured seven atmospheric storms that caused flooding and restored surface water storages through the winter of 2022, the drought declaration remains in place for several regions responsible for food production, including the Imperial and Central valleys. In mid-February, California’s agricultural community was alerted to an increase in their annual water allotment from 30 percent to 35 percent.
There is approximately 9.6 million acres of irrigated farmland throughout the state. The average need for agricultural irrigation of fruit and vegetable crops is 3 acre-feet per acre. If farms receive 30 percent of that allotment, they will have 11.3 million acre-feet, or 3.7 trillion gallons of water to work with in 2023.
While the water allotment for 2023 is significantly better than the 5 percent of total from 2022, it may be curtailed by persistent drought conditions during the coming months.
Farms and ranches have been able to find water savings during the drought to make better use of the allotments they receive. Planting of perennial crops and advances in irrigation technology mean California’s agricultural community has generated 38 percent more food while using 14 percent less water annually.
AB 460 would also hamper efforts in the agricultural community to recover from years of dry conditions and disrupt the food supply chain. Agriculture and municipalities should not be held to the same standards of water use as the casual water-user. Both agriculture and municipalities are responsible for keeping poor and rich alike thriving.
Without an exemption or disparate fine structure for agriculture, farms that accidently run afoul of the water use rules due to an irrigation infrastructure failure, would face enormous fines while trying to address the problem – an additional cost unto itself. It would also force food producers to make significant changes to their cropping decisions. Rather than planting fresh produce crops like lettuce, tomatoes, and berries, that require significantly more water, farms may invest in production of more drought-tolerant crops like cereal grains, fruit and nut trees.
Changes in cropping patterns to avoid the potential costs of bills like AB 460 ultimately change the availability of local, fresh, affordable produce. The economic impact of those changes is first, and most deeply, felt by low-income families who rely on readily accessible produce to supplement their nutritional needs.
If California wants to be mindful of water use, the state would be better served by curtailing lush yards and diverting its water resources to the segments of the economy that contribute to the greater good like food production. By limiting or eliminating fines for agricultural water users, the state might find an unlikely partner in enforcement and conservation.
Pam Lewison is the Director of Agriculture Research at the Washington Policy Center and a Pacific Research Institute fellow. She co-owns and operates a family farm in Eastern Washington state.