I think that a report that describes efficiency improvements that let ag farm happily while 10% of the water they use goes elsewhere is a false promise. It is balm for urban users and enviros, who would like to trade money for efficiency improvements for real wet water and still leave ag whole and happy. But that isn’t realistic. I think ag would contract sharply if big pieces of water weren’t available to them*. If we’re honest, that is the discussion we should be having. Of course water for the uses Californians value will come out of ag water use. It is that, new dams**, or tapping Wild and Scenic Rivers, and all the hippie urban votes will come down against ag. I think we should be planning a managed retreat for agriculture. I don’t think ag should be fighting to protect the acreage they’re farming now. They should be fighting to protect whatever core they value and to extort as much exit money out of the Californian collective as they can.
The rough estimates I talked about a couple days ago can give us an idea of scale. Six million acrefeet of lost snowpack storage? Cities and rivers jonesing for another 3.5 million acrefeet? That’s three million acres of farmland, out of about nine million acres***. Some of that farmland will retire itself. About half a million acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are saltifying (a process that will speed up as climate change makes the weather hotter, which means applying and evaporating even more slightly salty water). We’re gonna lose about 100,000 acres in the Delta as islands collapse. (Sweet graphic here. ) Urban encroachment will take out a bunch more acreage (although perhaps less, now that we have new urban planning legislation to discourage sprawl.). So, you know. Maybe 800,000 acres out of 3,000,000 acres will retire themselves.
The rest will involve choices. We could let it happen without planning, in which case ag will be eaten from the bottom up and by chance, with financially vulnerable farmers collapsing in a hodge-podge. We could institute a water market, which will arrive at an economically efficient outcome, regardless of whether we like an economically efficient outcome. A really fucking stupid way to do it would be based on order of seniority, with more recent farmers having to take the hit first and farmers that have been there a long time being protected until the end, no matter what they grow or how. That’d be unbelievably stupid.
Or, we could choose something. We could decide that we like certain farming practices and preserve the farm acreage that uses them. We could decide what we want six million acres of farmland to look like, on what soils and where and how big the farms should be, and design a system that supports those. We could choose to save the acreage on the best soils. We could choose to maintain the agriculture that supports rural communities. We could choose to retire the acreage that would make the best wildlife habitat when retired. We could decide it isn’t our responsibility to feed the whole country (which has perfectly good farmlands of its own if they weren’t growing corn and soybeans) at the expense of our own rivers. I don’t want to shock you or anything, but what I’m saying is that we could apply priorities to get the best possible outcome from a large, wrenching re-alignment.
But we will not face choices like that, or even admit that we have to make them, if we cling to the hope of efficiency gains that will let us carry on as usual. That’s my real gripe with the Pacific Institute report.
*While this is a crude measure, that is what they did this year. This drought year, ag cut down trees and let hundreds of thousands of acres go fallow. Yes, the missing chunk of water was much more than the 10% the Pacific Institute discusses and yes it takes time and money to install equipment and management that gives you efficiency improvements. But, to a first approximation, looks like farmers did not think they could squeeze enough water out of efficiency gains to water all their crops. It looks like farmers thought they couldn’t farm all their land with much less water.
**I’ll bring over my post on dams, to explain why I think those are a longshot. Sometime soon, I’ll do that.
***Yes, elasticities and efficiencies and American ingenuity, dammit! This is very rough. But I think facing it squarely allows us to set priorities.