Monthly Archives: September 2017

Food security concerns do not justify irrigating 9M acres of CA farmland.

Terra Nova Ranch

Cameron is a first-generation grower with roots in Redding, Calif. who fished as a kid in the Sacramento River. Today, he manages about 25 crops grown across 7,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno County. …

For Cameron, the necessity of preserving aquifers should be considered in concert with the state’s abilities to produce food and fiber. For instance, he once looked at food produced on his farm and discovered that it could sustain the caloric needs of 200,000 people.

200,000peoplefed/7,000acres = 39,000,000hungryCalifornians/x acres

California needs 1.365M acres of farmland to meet its own caloric needs, by whatever means Mr. Cameron used to make his calculation.  I don’t know whether that includes meat and dairy.  Right now, we have 9M irrigated acres.  Of those, about 1.5M are in tree nuts.  Nearly 1M are in grapes for wine and the table.  Almost 1M are in alfalfa for animal feed.

California can make whatever decisions it does about converting our rivers into additional money for billionaires, or into towns along Highway 99.  But none of those decisions are based on food security for Californians.  Every time CA ag makes the argument that it uses water to grow food, it is completely valid to point out that it uses Californian rivers to grow 6.5 times more food than Californians need, a third of it completely fucking frivolous.

When you hear that SGMA may cause farmers to idle 30% of their land, dropping irrigated acreage to 6M acres, you may rest easy.  They will then be growing 4.5 times more food than Californians need.

“Food security” arguments are arguments against using as much water as we do to grow as much food as we do.  A reasonable food security argument would designate 2M acres of land with good water reliability, designate the food it grows for Californians, and create supports and protections for that agricultural sector.  Two to three million acres should be retired to restore groundwater balances. The agricultural State Water Project lands should be retired, so a small tunnel solution to the Delta is workable.  And the remaining couple million acres should be farmed in normal to wet years.





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Piecemeal land retirement will not be the stable final state.

JFleck tells me that Palo Verde Irrigation district is suing Metropolitan Water District; to thank him for that helpful post, I’ve stolen his picture of PVID’s complaint about one externality:


I’ve written that piecemeal, widely dispersed land retirement will add expensive costs to the land that remains in production. I continue to wonder how that will be handled.  To my deep surprise, at this year’s California Irrigation Institute conference, the growers on the panel about decreased irrigation acreage all expected the same outcome in the San Joaquin Valley. (Jan 30, Session Two)  They thought 30-40% of currently farmed acreage would go out of production, and that every farm would hold their current acreage, but only farm 60-70% every year.  I was shocked.  That’s expensive!  Unfarmed land still has maintenance requirements, but doesn’t bring in any money.  I couldn’t tell whether they thought that was their best option, or whether they simply cannot say out loud that irrigated lands should be consolidated, with some farms going entirely out of business.

I’ve been wondering at that for a while, until Lois Henry raised a new possibility: that John Vidovich would hold all the newly not-irrigable land and that he calculates that water sales will cover the expenses from that land.  It is also possible that he doesn’t intend to pay full costs for the unfarmed lands that he will hold and that they will become nuisance properties.

At this point, I honestly don’t know how the land will be retired.  It is a shame that government involvement is completely taboo.  Government involvement could mean designating a state park, letting current farmers remain on their unfarmed lands for a life tenure, paying current farmworkers to restore habitat.  Government involvement could coordinate land swaps to consolidate farming communities.  But I understand that that might be Stalinism, or maybe Maoism, certainly doomed to failure like everything governments have ever done, and certainly worse than every individual farm in the south San Joaquin Valley carrying 40% of their acreage unfarmed every year.  Seems a pity that a coordinated, planned gentle landing isn’t an option.


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OtPR’s list of dangerous ideas in water management.

The California Water Blog recently created a list of “dangerous ideas in California water“.  Here are a few additional dangerous ideas in CA water management.

  • That conventional growth predictions are immutable and will pose new demand that we must meet.  There are a few predictions for the mid-century that I hear often.  The top two are: ‘California will have 60 million people’ and ‘the rising middle class in Asia will demand meat’.  Neither of those are immutable.  Future tastes (and sources) for meat are a matter of choice, which may not go in a predictable way.  Another possibility is that in two generations, people will simply not get to eat the meat they prefer.  Population size is subject to people’s optimism about the climate future and financial pressures, which are both pretty grim right now.  JFleck writes about de-coupling, in which cities grow without requiring additional water.  Predictions of inevitable growth pressures are not reasons for us to further damage the CA environment to develop more supplies for humans.
  • That water markets are a neutral, non-coercive way to reallocate water supplies.  Water markets are only a neutral way to allocate water supplies if every participant in the market starts with an equal amount of water and wealth.  When that is not the case, water markets do not represent the optimal distribution of water, utils and money. Rather, a water market is a way for the already wealthy to monopolize a good that once belonged to everyone.  Advocating for water markets is advocating for the currently wealthy to get more water supplies.  Water markets are not non-coercive either; remember that water gets sold after the three Ds (debt, divorce and death).  I further note that every single water market advocate that I’ve ever known of is in the wealth class that has the economic leverage to gain water supplies by them.
  • That California should grow all profitable foodstuffs.  Growing nearly any food takes about 3af/acre of land.  Not all foods, even the profitable ones, have equal nutritional and societal value.  Some foods have tremendous cultural value; some are facially ludicrous (sudan grass for luxury Japanese beef*).  The prevailing myths are that all agriculture produces valuable stuffs; that “profitable” is the right way to decide if they are valuable; that having an agricultural sector is a toggle -we either have it or don’t; that world demand for food creates an obligation for California to use all available water to feed an insatiable demand.  We could instead use values (i.e. varied and nutritious, primarily plant-based, diet for all Californians) to set the extent of Californian ag water use.

I may return to this list if I think of additional dangerous water myths.  Hope you’ve been well.  Enjoy your long weekend!


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