Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Managing California's water

Throughout the "fruitful rim," where most U.S. fruits and vegetables are produced, the most challenging environmental constraint is not insufficient land but rather insufficient water.

California, in particular, faces several different kinds of crisis in the next several years unless water is managed better.  According to a report in February from the Public Policy Institute of California, entitled "Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation," these crises include:
  • extinction and decline of native species,
  • catastrophic floods,
  • water scarcity, and
  • deteriorating water quality.
Some of the most serious problems are occurring in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, not far from my home this year in Davis, CA.  The region is at risk from both ecological and agricultural disasters in coming years, with an aging network of levees and an environmentally unsustainable system for shifting water from north (where it is more plentiful) to south (where agricultural and urban water deficits are worst).  A little further south of the delta, in agricultural regions that have "junior" water rights, I have seen signs along every roadside promoting conspiracy theories about the political origins of the water crisis.

Agriculture is a big user of water.  The report emphasizes that existing agricultural water is being used inefficiently.  Sixty percent of agricultural water use produces only 14% of the agricultural revenue.  High-value fruits, vegetables, and tree crops make economically effective use of their water allocations, while water-intensive production of lower-value grain and pasture may need reconsideration.  One reason why lower-value crops are produced in water-scarce California may be federal subsidies.  The report explains:
[C]rop subsidies can create a disincentive if the subsidy payment is tied to the volume of production. Crop subsidies are now less closely tied to crop acreage and production than in the past, with payments based on past volumes and acreage. However, it is likely that farmers still consider the potential for the loss of subsidies with program adjustments when they make their planting decisions. Changes in federal farm policy are needed to break this link and facilitate more efficient use of water.
The report's authors are Ellen Hanak, Jay Lund, Ariel Dinar, Brian Gray, Richard Howitt, Jeffrey Mount, Peter Moyle, and Barton “Buzz” Thompson.

Roadside signs in the Central Valley (photo: Sarah Huber)

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