A schism over ag water conservation?

Dr. Gleick might or might not agree with my last post arguing that the PPIC report has an underlying theme of extracting water from ag. His complaint is elsewhere, that the report doesn’t recommend agricultural water conservation and include yields from ag water conservation as part of the solution.

The report’s biggest blind spot is agriculture, the state’s largest water user. The authors discount the vast potential for improving agricultural water-use efficiency because they misunderstand how it works in the real world, they overestimate its costs, and they misconstrue, misrepresent or minimize the benefits of these improvements. Why do they ignore this potential? Because they make the simplistic and false assumption, promulgated by some in the agricultural industry, that all excessive farm water use is already recaptured and reused.

This conclusion is at odds with history, science, field studies and the actual experience of California farmers. In reality, abundant water is lost to unproductive evaporation or to other sinks where it is not recaptured. Other benefits accrue from agricultural efficiency improvements as well, including better water quality, improvements in the timing of flows in important stretches of California’s rivers, reductions in energy demands and a savings of real water. Every one of these advantages would contribute to solving problems in the Delta and elsewhere. Efficiency improvements must therefore be central to any portfolio of recommendations for a new California water policy.

This editorial made me realize that I’m starting to see a schism around this issue. Dr. Gleick and the Pacific Institute are leading a faction that thinks there is enough inefficiency in ag water use that there are substantial salvageable amounts of water (and other benefits) to be gained from ag water conservation. I’m an example (although surely not a leader of anything) of someone who thinks that the basins have negative water (as shown by falling gw levels), that ag should switch to more efficient practices for the other benefits, and we’ll end up getting a good deal of water from ag by retiring irrigated lands.

On the one hand, this isn’t such a big difference. I strongly suspect both groups would call themselves enviros, and agree on prioritizing the existence of a bait fish while crushing out property rights of real Americans everywhere. We can all aspire to be the target of one of Devin Nunes’ rants together.

On the other hand, maybe there’s antagonism developing? I don’t love reading that my take on the situation is the one promulgated by the ag industry. Surely I’ve been clear enough here that no one mistakes me for an ag apologist. (More of a Kunstler-esque collapse pessimist, which is an entirely different motivation.) I read the Pacific Institute report, wrote about it here for a couple weeks. Then I came to a different professional judgment, which is that I don’t expect the SJV and lower Sac Valley to get much water out of conservation, although there are other good reasons for better ag water management. Which is what I imagine the authors of the PPIC report did, although I can’t speak for them, of course.

I hope I’m wrong about a schism forming, since I know (a little bit) and respect (a lot) people who hold both positions. They all care a great deal about getting us out of our current mess, and I am guessing they have substantial overlap in priorities (and that mine map fairly closely). Hmmm. Maybe one of the unlooked-for benefits of anonymity is that I can remain undeclared in my personal interactions with folk, stay low-pro. That will be my plan. You guys would not believe how mild-mannered I am in real life, all meekly polite and shit. They’ll never guess.



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8 responses to “A schism over ag water conservation?

  1. Anon

    Who would be the key figures on the their is not a lot of water in ag side?

  2. You’ll know you’ve made it when you’re the target of a Devin Nunes rant – kinda like a public figure being spoofed on Saturday Night Live.

  3. I think you misunderstand me, in a serious way. It seems as though you are arguing that you don’t “expect” the CV to get much out of agricultural efficiency. Explain: is that because you don’t believe the efficiency gains are REAL, or you just don’t think it will happen for political or policy reasons? If the former, we have a serious disagreement. If the latter, you could be completely correct (though I see evidence every day of farmers actually working hard to capture inefficiencies, so I think we WILL get more improvements).

    Finally, I lead no “faction.” Our analysis of the potential for agricultural efficiency improvements is based on science, field work, history, and actual observation working with California farmers. The potential is real, and it is significant, but I have no idea whether we (the state as a whole) will capture that potential. There is a big difference between we CAN versus we WILL. One is an analytical observation; the other depends of policies, decisions, actions, financing, law, and more. I try not to confuse CAN and WILL, but I get annoyed at those (like PPIC) who don’t understand the “CAN” part. A real argument can be made over “WILL” (and of course, HOW). But to argue that the potential is effectively zero is a disservice. Hence my op-ed about the PPIC report.

  4. Mr/s. Anonymous OtPR:

    It is difficult to believe that in-Delta (yes, them too), SJV, and lower Sacramento agricultural contractors, the users of more than 75% of Delta water, could not, if compelled one way or another, reduce their water consumption by an amount that, given their large share of the pie, would have to be characterized as significant and worth saving.

    I can be dismissed as naive or uninformed since I haven’t read the report, and am not fluent with Dr. Gleick’s research, but still – isn’t this simply a matter of farmers investing in more efficient irrigation methods? It may be the case that doing so makes CA farmers less competitive in a global market, and perhaps that is the argument you, OtPR, are making, I don’t know.

    Vis-a-vis your differences, Dr. Gleick poses two options – one about science, the other about politics. A third is I guess that farmers have done everything that can be done to conserve. Which are you arguing?

  5. Oh, one more point. I also completely agree that we could save HUGE quantities of water by land fallowing or significant crop shifting, but the work of the Pacific Institute has NOT tackled this, nor do we argue for it explicitly. I believe first in helping support a healthy and vibrant agricultural community, and I believe they can produce as much food and fiber as they do now with less water.

    In the end, will some fallowing be necessary to avoid completely destroying our remaining ecosystems? Maybe. But I note that the PPIC report doesn’t recommend this either. Thus, they argue (1) No potential for efficiency improvements; but then they (2) refuse to explicitly recommend what is the only (uglier and far less preferable) alternative: fallowing. Hence my comments that they effectively completely ignore agriculture as a part of the solution.

  6. onthepublicrecord

    Explain: is that because you don’t believe the efficiency gains are REAL, or you just don’t think it will happen for political or policy reasons?

    I think there are valuable gains from efficiency. At the on-farm level there are substantive gains in crop yields and quality to be captured. At the district level, better canal control could improve the reliability and responsiveness of delivery systems. Better ag efficiency could leave water in rivers longer and improve water quality. We probably agree on all that.

    But, I believe (as I’ve said here before) that at the basin level, the basins are either using very close to the agronomic demands of the crops, or possibly underirrigating. I don’t see how ag water conservation will free up substantial wet water for any other purpose while maintaining the same extent of cropping.

    (The small foothill farms and the northern farms are different. I believe they have plenty of slack, and could use considerably less water while growing the same crops.)

    Do I think political or policy barriers will prevent this? Hard to say. The only thing I’m sure of is that urban folks will get their water. Besides that, it is anyone’s guess.

    I try not to confuse CAN and WILL, but I get annoyed at those (like PPIC) who don’t understand the “CAN” part.

    There is a contingent who understands your explanation of the “CAN” part, and disagrees with you. They have come to a different professional judgment on the evidence, probably because they weight the basin efficiency argument more heavily than you do. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve sided with ag, because some have gone on record arguing for the even less pleasant option of land retirement.

  7. Steven Farrell

    First, thank you all for this public rinsing of these sometimes polarizing pools of thought.

    In wading thru this stream of opinions, I’m left clinging to the hope that crop modification for Ag is the most productive, viable (and palatable) course for both sides of the flow.

    Will ag, enviros, and even the eggheads eventually eddy together on this solution? Efficiency is king in my opinion, but its effectiveness is eroded if we do not eradicate the needless frothy demand of high-water agriculture models. Efficiency of delivery is one thing. Efficiency of the farmed food and fiber products themselves is another.

    Did I somehow miss this issue in your cascading discussions?

    Shouldn’t we be floating a much stronger endorsement of crop alteration as one of California’s current water lifesavers?

    Just splashing aroun’…

  8. onthepublicrecord

    I am in favor of crop modification, but that’s because I don’t eat meat. Cheap water for field crops is the underpinning for cheap meat. I’m perfectly happy to see the end of cheap meat, but it will mean a lifestyle change that I don’t think most people have come to terms with.