February 26, 1989
"Take Water from Low-value Agriculture"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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CALIFORNIA could not have avoided the drought of 1987-89. A drought is an
act of nature.
But California could have avoided the water shortage of 1989, if sensible priorities
for allocating water had been adopted a few years ago. In the future, water shortages
will be created or avoided by acts of government.
In a normal, non-drought year, California has about 32 million acre-feet of
water supply. In a typical year, California farmers use about 26.6 million acre-feet
of water to produce $15 billion in farm products, while urban residents and industry
use 5.4 million acre-feet of water to produce about $560 billion of everything
Clearly, if the game is to reduce water use in California, agriculture must
be the main playing field. The chart below provides a breakdown of water use in
California agriculture, ranked by crop. The figures are taken from 1986, before
the drought would have caused significant cutbacks.
To understand how startling these figures are, consider a hypothetical plan
for saving water. Simply stop growing the top four water-using crops: irrigated
pasture, alfalfa, cotton and rice.
The economic loss from this plan would be $1.7 billion. That amount is only
11 percent of the value of California farm production, or one-quarter of 1 percent
of the state economy.
The gain would be a 45 percent cut in state water use. The extra 14.3 million
acre-feet would be enough for urban water use to increase by 250 percent. Or as
Marc Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert," recently wrote after performing
a similar calculation, "There would instantly be enough water for 70 million
more Californians... God forbid."
All the warmed-over ideas for more dams, reservoirs, even a Peripheral Canal,
look crazy when judged against this hypothetical plan. What other proposal can
guarantee the state 14.3 million acre-feet of new water, plus an environmental
gain, at a cost of less than $2 billion?
But as a way to get more water this summer, this proposal is unrealistic. The
main reason is that rural water districts have legal rights to water under longstanding
state and federal agreements, and those contracts cannot be ignored.
In theory, the rural water districts could agree to sell off some of their
water to urban districts. After three years of drought, however, the water flowing
to many farms has been cut in half. Not many rural water districts will want to
sell even a part of their remaining water this summer.
But even if this hypothetical plan is not much help this year, it should point
the way for California's long-term water policy. After all, if this plan had been
in effect the last few years, even the current three-year drought would not have
led to any water shortages.
In "California Water: Looking to the Future," the Department of Water
Resources predicted that agricultural water use in 2010 will be roughly the same
as it is now. That prediction may be accurate, but it is the wrong goal. Instead,
California should be aiming to cut agricultural water use by at least one-third.
That goal is not as far-fetched or as difficult as it may sound.
Given proper incentives and time, farmers can gradually shift from relatively
low-value crops that use a lot of water -- like pasture, alfalfa, cotton and rice
-- to relatively high-value crops that use less water. Grapes, almonds, tomatoes
and citrus are a few of the possible replacement crops, and other likely candidates
include avocados, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, peaches, plums, potatoes, strawberries
Some additional water savings might occur through more efficient irrigation
in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valley.
Consumers have nothing to fear from this sort of shift in farm production.
The United States has an oversupply of rice, cotton and wheat, built up by federal
subsidies. The major benefit to California consumers is that they would never
again have to worry about a water shortage.
The most direct way of encouraging farmers to save water is through the price
system. Although water prices vary considerably, farm prices for water are generally
much lower than urban prices; for example, a rural water district may pay $30
an acre-foot, while an urban district may pay $200 an acre- foot.
Charging farmers 10 percent more for water leads to about a 6 percent cut in
water use, according to economic studies. If those results hold true, charging
farmers, say, 50 percent more for water would just about achieve the one-third
cut, while still letting farmers pay far less for water than urban residents.
State and federal officials should push higher water prices for farmers, particularly
when the water contracts come up for renewal.
Government officials should seize other possible ways of pressuring farms to
use less water, too. For example, rural water districts should be encouraged to
sell water to urban districts.
California's water shortage has not been caused by the drought, but rather
by its outmoded way of misallocating its water resources.
|AGRICULTURAL WATER USE
|This chart shows the water usage and value of crops grown on
irrigated farmland in California. Water is given in acre-feet; crop value is given
in millions of dollars.
Sources: Crop value estimates are from the "California Agricultural Data
Base," published by the Giannini Foundation. Water use estimates are derived
from acreage estimates in the "California Agricultural Data Base," multiplied
by estimates of water use per acre that appear in "Crop Water Use in California,"
an April 1986 publication of the Department of Water Resources.
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