My thoughts on Governor Brown’s reasons for not including agriculture in mandatory water restrictions.

Governor Brown lists three reasons in the ABC interview below.

  1. The lack of delivery from the water projects and water rights curtailments of junior appropriators is already sufficient cutback.
  2. It would end Californian food production and displace hundreds of thousands of people.
  3. Our historical water rights system gives (some) farmers precedent.

1.  This argument doesn’t impress me much, because we know that farmers are still getting water. They had a cheap surface water cutback, but replaced that supply with groundwater.  About 500,000 acres out of 9,500,000 acres were fallowed.  The remaining 9,000,000 acres used water to keep permanent crops alive or finished other crops.  Growers paid more money for this water, or they increased their overdraft.  Their actual cutback was 500,000acres/9,500,000acres = 5.2%.  I’d be happy to grant that growers deficit irrigated, or watered the very minimum to keep crops alive, so that percent might be higher, even 8% or 9%.  That’s about in line with urban water conservation last year.  The water right curtailments and lack of project water are not imposing a burden on agriculture whole disproportionate to the burden urban users shouldered last year.  We will know that agriculture has matched the 25% cuts being imposed on urban users because 2.4 million irrigated acres will be fallowed.

2a.  Brown said “Of course we could shut it off,” said Brown. “If you don’t want to produce any food and import it from some other place.”  I will never understand why agriculture is discussed as a toggle, either on or off.  If we cut back some ag water, all the other growers will refuse to grow food in solidarity?  You could still have A LOT OF AGRICULTURE, even if you cut back A LOT.  That’s because there is a WHOLE LOT now.  Ag could cut back the 2.4 million irrigated acres just with tree nuts and alfalfa.  California could still supply literally every other thing it grows now, every single leaf of spinach.

2b.  Brown mentioned displacing hundreds of thousands of growers (because if one water district* gets cut off, every other grower in the state leaves as well.  The growers, united, will never be divided.).   I note that growers have been drawing down groundwater so that personal and municipal wells are going dry.  This fastidiousness about driving people from their homes is not reciprocated.  But look, if it is going to be very hard on farmworkers, we could help them by … giving them fat cash.  We can come up with money more readily than we can create water.

3. Our historical water rights system.  My guess is that until they (Gov Brown and the State Board) are absolutely forced to it, they will not take this on.  Partly out of respect for history and law, partly because where would you start, partly because the lawsuits would start. But Gov. Brown knows full well they are an unfair, convoluted mess.  Two more years of drought and emergency powers will get turned on the water rights system too**.

*I propose they start with Dudley Ridge Water District, which has not one resident and is wholly owned by a few  corporations.

**Here’s what you do, State Board. Spend the two years getting ready to put the next system in place. Don’t even glance at the existing system. Grant every person a headright of 30gppd that travels with them.  Cities can administer the aggregate, based on population.  Figure out what instream flows should be.  Decide which five million acres should be farmed and grant those lands 3.5 acft/acre.  In years with more water than that total, users can buy more directly from the State.


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4 responses to “My thoughts on Governor Brown’s reasons for not including agriculture in mandatory water restrictions.

  1. ScottB

    So, wait, in your response to item 1 you said:

    “We will know that agriculture has matched the 25% cuts being imposed on urban users because 2.4 million irrigated acres will be fallowed.”

    But that doesn’t seem right unless you believe that all the ag water in CA is already perfectly efficient, with no waste. It would seem to be that limits on water use would be designed to wring inefficiencies out of the system in addition to (and probably prior to) fallowing land.

    Or let’s put it this way – the analogous residential water statement would be “We will know that urban users have met the 25% cuts being imposed on them because 9-10 million people left the state”.

    And I don’t think that’s actually going to be the case.

    I know you’ve written about ag use inefficiencies before, and maybe there just isn’t enough info to quantify the possible savings, but there must be some room for better water usage or crop changes that would happen before 25% of irrigated acreage went fallow…


  2. onthepublicrecord

    No, you’re right. It isn’t exactly a 3 to 1 ratio (acre-feet to acres). There is some room for efficiency improvements, in both ag and urban. I get kinda sloppy because I do think that it is a good first rule of thumb (within 10% or so).

  3. ScottB

    OK, but that’s interesting – the fact that you think it’s within 10% means you don’t think there’s massive wasting of water occurring. Is that a fair statement? I’m just wondering, since extracting groundwater seems relatively painless I was wondering if the timeline was a) get less surface water b) make efficiency improvements c) use groundwater or if b) and c) are reversed and people started taking massive groundwater before they increased the efficiency of their water use because, well, why not!

    OTOH, I’m pretty sure there are ways for residential water users to reduce their water footprint significantly, before it even starts to hurt…is that an unstated reason for Gov. Brown to lean on residential use first??

    Thanks for posting, and thanks for the reply!!

  4. onthepublicrecord

    I don’t actually think there is massive waste, for two reasons. The first is that farmers have done a lot of work since the mid-nineties improving their irrigation efficiency. There could still be gains, and since crop yield generally goes up when irrigation efficiency improves, there is good reason for farmers to improve.

    The second reason sounds like an apologia for ag, but it is also true. Overirrigation on one field becomes a source for the next field or for groundwater replenishment. So on a regional or basin scale, there isn’t massive waste (which is no reason for an individual to get sloppy!). Here are the big-name irrigation profs assessing the potential for savings by changing irrigation techniques.

    Groundwater was readily accessable, but it gets expensive to pump. In general, I’d say the timeline is:
    a) get less surface water
    b) make efficiency improvements
    c) use groundwater
    because you get a ton of other good things with better irrigation control (higher crop yield, less disease, knowing what is going on in your fields better, lower water bills or pumping bills).