How will 3 million acres of irrigated land go out of production?

Between groundwater overdraft, urban growth and climate change decreasing useful precip, I predict that 3 million acres of irrigated agriculture in California will go out of production in the next few decades. What I can’t predict is how they will go out of production. Here are some ways it could happen:

  • The State could offer to buy agricultural land at five times market rate, from anyone who wants to sell. Or the State could buy out entire water districts, so that it owns contiguous land.
  • The State could do nothing, let wells fail and let growers eat their losses individually, wherever they are. Counties would pay for the costs of scattered abandoned lands.
  • Water districts could plan for continued shortages, identifying the lands that will not get water, allowing the land along entire laterals to go dry. The remaining farmers could pay compensation to the farmers who will not receive water.
  • The State could identify 6 million acres of prime ag land that it wants to support. It could offer that acreage the assurance of water during droughts or monetary support in dry years in exchange for growing fruits and veggies. It could forbid groundwater pumping for ag use outside the 6 million acres.
  • The State could hasten the failure of the 3 million acres by forbidding groundwater overdraft, billing farmers for the costs of subsidence, and banning almond orchards.
  • The State could offer to buy out lands during generational change.

There are lots of ways this could happen.  Only some of them have horrible outcomes for everyone.  Some of them have costs in money and some of them have costs in human suffering.  Some of them concentrate wealth among the already wealthy and some of them support middle class farming towns.  When I am pessimistic, I am not pessimistic that the land will go out of production.  That is inevitable. I am pessimistic that refusing to face that fact means that the collapse will be catastrophic, disorderly and borne by individuals, instead of planned, orderly and borne by all of us.  I am pessimistic that the taboo of describing a poorer future means that we won’t do the work to create the least bad outcome.

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No really. What would it mean to go from 9.5M irrigated acres to 6M irrigated acres in California?

What does it mean if one-third of irrigated acres in California go out of production? Well, depends on your perspective. First, it does not mean the end of agriculture in California, because two-thirds of irrigated agriculture would persist. That’s 6 million acres of irrigated agriculture, which is rather a lot.

Does it mean that your fruits and veggies will get more expensive? Does it mean that non-Californians will never have an almond again? Should you be hoarding wine? I don’t know. That depends on how the transition happens. The only thing that looks inevitable to me is that meat and dairy will become much more expensive. Relatively cheap feed, like alfalfa and silage, is the underpinning for cheap meat and dairy. I don’t see how those can remain cheap, nor how meat&dairy can withstand the way resource consumption intensifies with each step up the food chain.

Will the agricultural economy collapse? It doesn’t have to. Some two-thirds of it will remain, probably where the water resources were richest in the first place. The Sacramento Valley, the coastal valleys, Yolo, the northeast side of the San Joaquin Valley will be able to keep farming. Places that are poor now will become poorer until they are abandoned or find new industries.

Would retiring lands really suck for the people who are now farming them? It could. Again, it depends on how it happens. But many of the problems caused by farms going out of production are problems of poverty. Those can be addressed with things that may be more available than water, like re-training for other careers or monetary support or funding for re-location.

What about the empty barren land, with poisonous salt dirt-devils swirling everywhere? That’s the Salton Sea, you guys. In the San Joaquin Valley, it would return to scrub. Not every inch of land has to be farmed.

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Going from 9.5ish million irrigated acres to 6ish million irrigated acres. WILL WE ALL DIE?

Yes. Your best hope is that the end comes quickly, probably in a flood or heat wave or maybe from invasive insects and West Nile.

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Why I think 3 million acres of irrigated land will go out of production by, say, 2040.

It is my contention that about three million irrigated acres in California will go out of production in the next few decades. My estimate is the highest I have seen.

I break it down as follows: annual overdraft in the SJV is between 4.5-5MAF. When that stops, either because groundwater management agencies bring the basins into balance or because groundwater will drop too low to economically pump, about 1.5M acres will not have irrigation water available to them.

I believe the droughts we are seeing now will be our future normal climate and we will receive very little useable precip. I believe urban users will use political power to claim more of what we do get and to protect adorable fishies. That gets me another million acres.

I believe the Delta will succumb to sea level rise, storm tides and floods on the Sacramento River. That’s another 300,000 acres.

I add these and round up, and arrive at 3 million irrigated acres retired, down from our current 9.5ish million irrigated acres.

Here is Dr. Burt, guessing that 1 to 1.5 million irrigated acres will go out of production. The PPIC/U.C. Davis crew must have a prediction, but I couldn’t find it handily. I’ll put it in this post if someone points me to it.

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Yes, very important.

The Fresno Bee tells us:

In a sign of this dry time, Sacramento Valley rice growers offered to fallow some of their fields and sell a more valuable harvest: Feather River water.

Farmers in our parched western San Joaquin Valley bid for the water as they fight to keep almond and pistachio trees alive.

They lost to a consortium led by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that included the Kern County Water Agency, Kings County, and water districts on the Central Coast and in the Santa Clara and Napa valleys.

Sacramento River Valley rice grower Bryce Lundberg, an executive of Lundberg Family Farms, sits on the Western Canal Water District Board. which is among the nine agencies that intend to sell water to the consortium.

This was his assessment: “When a group representing 18 million people come to call, it is important to listen to them. Being able to spread (water) to the most critical needs is good policy. A very targeted or directed use doesn’t make as much sense.”

I recently saw myself described as “a wonderful blogger who has just a few blind spots about political constraints.”  (I was tremendously flattered.)  It is true.  I am not concerned about political constraints, for the same reason Mr. Lundberg knows that the rice growers must sell to L.A..  I do not believe any political constraints can stand up to the self-interest of the urban water users in California.  A tipping point will come and when it does, 38 million of the 39 million people who live here will realize that words on paper are the only thing standing between them and the water they want.  They have the power to re-write those words, by initiative or through the legislature.

It could be an initiative for an overhaul of the water rights system.  The legislature could revise Article 10 of the California Constitution, or point to another body to propose the revision (as they did with the Delta Stewardship Commission for the co-equal goals and the California Water Commission to define the public benefit parts of water storage that should be paid for by all of us).  But if you ask me which I believe in more: that urban users will adopt inconvenient behaviors to conserve water or that urban users will vote to revise water rights in their favor, I would bet on the latter without hesitation.  It is just a matter of time.

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I’ll show you “provocative”.

Today I got an invitation to “the most provocative water conference” of the spring.  I nearly died of boredom just reading the speaker list.  We keep hearing the same fifteen voices and they keep saying measured things that have a chance of making incremental progress.  I bet the range of debate at the “most provocative water conference” of the spring is whether the State should spend lots of money building storage and give out only a little money for integrated water management, or spend a little money building storage and give out a lot of money for integrated water management.  I used to mind that I am a low level bureaucrat that doesn’t get sent to conferences, but I haven’t heard an interesting thing at a conference in years.  Even the crazies from the public are predictable, since I can read them in newspaper comments (not you, my treasured readers!  Never you.).

I should say that I have a lot of respect for the speakers on the regular circuit.  They are a conference organizer’s dream.  They show up with their presentations clean and ready; they can speak for whatever length of time is needed.  They speak clearly and can answer anything.  That said, they are pros.  They represent an administration or an organization and they are not going to be questioned into saying anything unscripted or controversial. If you heard them at the last conference, you can make an excellent guess at what they’ll say at the next conference. It will not be provocative. The range of public water discourse is very narrow; it is all incremental change from how we do things now.

Here are some provocative ideas that will not be explored at this conference:

  • Urban water users will not change their behavior to conserve water.  They may use less water if they can do so passively, as by switching fixtures.  But even in a drought, only people who are already ideologically motivated will inconvenience themselves to conserve water. People will need the motivation of high bills to change behaviors.
  • Groundwater users should pay for the damage subsidence has caused to public infrastructure.  Once the cost of repairs has been determined, they should be assessed proportionally, by overlying acreage.
  •  If the goal is drought resilience, we could use money instead of water to keep farm communities intact until a wet year.  If it is important that farm workers in Mendota live decent lives during droughts, we don’t have to find non-existent water for their employers’ farms.  We could just hand the farm workers fat checks.  Similarly, if it is important that no farmers go out of business during a drought, we could pay them to be there in the next wet year even if they grow nothing rather than having them live off the profit from a crop.  (This doesn’t work for permanent crops.)
  • Water is a public resource whose uses are properly decided by the State, not by “the market”.  It is proper for the State to decide that it would rather a public resource be used to grow staples for its population than luxury crops that maximize individual farmer profit.

I have to go, but as I think of more concepts that would make conferences actually interesting, I’ll add to the list.

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One-third of California’s ten million irrigated acres grow table fruits and vegetables.

I got these numbers from the USDA 2014 Agricultural Overview.  I aggregated them willy-nilly and even rounded to make the addition easier.  This is rough; it won’t even add up to 10 million acres.  But the next time someone says ‘California grows HALF! the countries fresh vegetables and fruit’, you can say, ‘yes, and they grow that on about one-third of their irrigated acreage.  So we could stop irrigating the other parts with no loss to American salads.’

The 2014 California and Nevada Vegetable Crop Summary tells me:

The top 24 fresh market vegetables: 1.58 million acres

The top 8 processed vegetables: 1.09 million acres

The rest of these values are from the USDA 2014 Agricultural Overview:

Citrus: 271,000 acres (oranges: 170,000, lemons: 46,000, grapefruit: 10,000, tangerines: 45,000)

Fruit: 217,000 acres (peaches: 44,000, prunes: 48,000, melons: 56,000, cherries: 33,000, nectarines: 21,000, apples: 15,000)

Rice: 434,000 acres

Grapes: 880,000 acres (wine: 570,000, raisin: 200,000, table: 110,000)

Corn: 520,000 acres (420,000 acres silage = fed to cows)

Hay: 1,380,000 acres (alfalfa: 875,000 acres, other hay: 500,000 acres)

Nuts: 1,365,000 acres (almonds: 860,000 acres, pistachios: 215,000 acres, walnuts: 290,000 acres)

Last year’s drought resulted in fallowing about 500,000 acres.

You can add those up in different ways, but the fresh produce that humans eat directly (both veggies, citrus, fruit, table grapes) comes to 3,300,000 acres.  That is one third of our irrigated acreage.  We can round up to 4 million acres to get the small specialty crops.  Sixty percent of California’s acres could drop out of production, 6 million acres, with no loss of fruits and vegetables.  The rice is directly consumed by humans.  Then about 2 million acres of corn, alfalfa and other hay is fed to animals.  Then we grow nuts for the world.

I list these numbers to refute the implicit argument that goes: California grows half the country’s fruits and veggies and therefore must get enough water to irrigate all the land in production now.  If the important thing is having fresh produce, we do that on about forty percent of currently irrigated land.  After that, I believe there are policy choices to be made about whether we want to use water to make wine, keep the price of meat and dairy low, or grow nuts for the world.

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