20 February 2016 - DrSunshine.org

Food Grows Where Water Flows - Irrigation in California

Let's talk about water. Dr Sunshine just got back from a drive up the Central Valley of California. He saw a lot of signs like these:

It would be one thing for some hardscrabble farmers to post signs like these, but it's another matter when the "family farm" is a 7,000-acre behemoth. In California, farms averaging about 7,000 acres account for 60% of the farmland (but only 3% of the farmers), so it's likely that "farmers" with giant farms post most of the signs. Do you think Dr Sunshine is pissed off? You bet he is! Dr Sunshine is always pissed off, and signs like these make him apoplectic.

Let's take them one by one.

Food grows where water flows.  Undeniable, but food grows where water drips, too, or flows sparingly. Water-intensive crops can thrive on 25% to 75% less water than old-fashioned farmers use now if the water is delivered at the right time, even if the delivery method is flood irrigation. Take almonds for example. Experiments at UC Davis have shown that properly timed delivery of water to almond groves can reduce water usage by 75% without damaging the trees or reducing yields. Same goes for other nuts. Strawberries, too. They are grown near the coast, not in the Central Valley, but, like almonds, strawberries are a water-intensive crop, so a little water conservation goes a long way. Farmers have found that sensor technology connected to smart phone software makes it possible for them to reduce water usage in strawberry fields by a third.

So, a little technology and smart irrigation practices can easily save well over 25% of agricultural water usage. Since agriculture accounts for 80% of water usage in California, reducing agricultural usage by as little as 25% doubles the amount of water available for other uses. Drinking water for people, for example. (Here's the math: saving a quarter of the 80% used by agriculture reduces the total water usage by 20%, and that equals the total of all non-agricultural usage.)

Water = Jobs. Another undeniable fact. But installation and maintenance of water-saving technology means jobs, too, so the agricultural work-force would be bigger, not smaller. The average wage would go up, too, because installation and maintenance of technology pays better than rerouting irrigation ditches. Here is what the sign should say:

Water + Technology = More Jobs + Better Wages + Huge Water Savings

The combination of technology and improved practice makes thing better all around. Would food prices go up? Maybe a little, or maybe not at all. Agribusiness might see a little less profit. Or, profits might go up because pumping and other water distribution costs would be reduced along with as water usage.

Is growing food wasting water?  Think the answer is "no"? Dr Sunshine doesn't think so. Antiquated irrigation practices are wasting a lot of water. Even if as many as half of the farmers in California were using modern practices, the rest of them would be wasting at least half as much water as the people use in all of the cities and towns in the state (remember the math: 25% of agricultural water usage equals all non-agricultural usage). Actually, it's probably more dramatic than that because 25% of all irrigation water is about the least that modern practices would save. It would not surprise Dr Sunshine to learn that wasted irrigation water adds up to more water than all the people in all the cities and towns use in their homes.

Dams or Trains ... Build more water storage now. California has plenty of water storage. What California needs is farmers who take water convervation seriously. Besides, it's appalling for an oligarch with a 7,000-acre farm to be clamoring for more government handouts. Can a human being be more shameless than that? Dr Sunshine doesn't think so.

California does not need more dams, but for sure it needs more trains. Public transportation is nearly nonexistent. California should be making massive investments in building fast trains, light rail, and trolleys all over the state. And not trains powered by fossil fuels, either. Electric trains. Diesel locomotives already use electricity to drive the wheels. Locomotives in the USA just need to stop generating that electricity on the fly and, instead, connect directly to electric wires running over the tracks, like they do in the rest of the civilized world.

Bottom line. Dr Sunshine does not know what percentage of irrigated farmland currently uses technology and smart practices to reduce water usage, but he does know what the percentage should be. It should be 100%. Agribusiness, if their billboards in the Central Valley are any indication, are not inclined to switch to high-tech irrigation on their own. We the people have to force the issue. It will require a few new laws and a bunch of hard-fought battles in court. But it has to be done. And soon.

Dr Sunshine

Update, 6 Jul 2016: An article by a water expert claims that 45% of irrigated farmland in California used "high efficiency" methods. However, the author considers sprinklers to be an example of a highly efficient technique, which makes Dr Sunshine a little skeptical of that expert's opinions. Sprinklers may be more efficient than flood irrigation, but that's not saying much.

The expert is also impressed by a particular farm family's ability, over a period of 40 years, to get 40% more alfalfa from the same amount of water. They're not using less water, mind you. They're just getting more alfalfa from the same amount of water. Alfalfa! for Christ's sake. In the desert! Sure, they can raise alfalfa year round in the desert, and make a lot of money, too, but that doesn't make it a good idea. Besides, they're doing it with water that they inherited from some squatter who showed up a hundred years ago, when we were all babes in the woods, and claimed water that should have been our birthright. Our government just gave it to them. We'd never give it them now. We might rent it to them, but we wouldn't give it to them, would we? And we wouldn't have given it to them then, either, if we hadn't been babes in the woods. Our job now is to try to figure out how to get those water rights back, place the ownership in our government, and lease out whatever part of we're inclined to lease out.

Dr Sunshine did take some encouragement from an assertion in the expert's article that farm water usage in California has declined 40% since the 1980s. I hope he's right about that. And, I hope we'll force the farmers to cut their water usage by another 40% in the next 10 years. They can do it. It's just a matter of investing in the right technology. Maybe we can make them a loan to cover the investment, for, say, a return of the water rights to the government and a water lease agreement.

Update, 4 Jan 2017: Watch out, you water-wasting oligarchs with 7,000-acre farms! Technology is coming after you. Vertical farming using ten times less water than you do, and it produces no toxic runoff to pollute the oceans.

Update, 1 Jun 2017: Some good news from John Fleck: the Imperial Irrigation District reduced its agricultural water usage by over half a million acre feet (twice the annual domestic usage of Las Vegas) in 2016, mostly through low-tech but changes, such as canal lining and smart timing of deliveries. At the same time, agricultural productivity increased, partly because farmers switched from low-value crops like alfalfa to high-value ones like lettuce. In other words, with just a few smart changes farmers saved a significant amount of water. Imagine what they could do with high-tech irrigation practices.

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