I looked down at the small pile of almonds in my hand, a frequent afternoon snack. They were from drought-stricken California, and almond farmers were taking it on the chin lately as heavy “users” of water.
With the hubbub over water rights, was I doing harm to California by eating the almonds? Was I doing harm by NOT eating the almonds? The fight for water rights had officially hit my pantry. Since they were already in my hand, I ate them. But then reached out to an expert to discuss the crisis.
Kris Beal has been a True Food friend for years. She has a Masters in Agriculture (Ag) specializing in soil/plant/water relations and is a former professor at Cal Poly working at the Irrigation Training and Research Center. Currently, she is the Executive Director at the Vineyard Team, an organization that promotes sustainable wine growing.
Q: How are the farmers doing during the drought?
The farmers are struggling. Groundwater levels are declining, and water quality is diminishing. Growers incur higher costs for energy to pump the water. In some cases the water is so low, they don’t have any available for use. Some growers rely on “developed” water (surface water deliveries) but receive only 0 – 20 percent of their allocation.
To compensate, growers are turning to groundwater that is depleting, or they’re taking land out of production. The latest numbers I’ve seen is 500K+ acres out of production. With limited water, people are making the choice to use the little water they have to save their permanent crops (trees/orchards). This means annuals aren’t being grown such as lettuce, melons, tomatoes, etc.
Q: What do you think about the Governor’s recent order for urban water restrictions?
I think the restrictions are good. The inference that Ag isn’t part of cutbacks is not right. For the last three years, Ag water allocations have declined, so they endured cutbacks before the recent governor’s policy for urban areas. As a water expert, my opinion is that we need to cut back during wet years. Groundwater basins act as a bank. In wet years, we need to supplement less with irrigation (Ag, municipal), so we should be applying/using less in those years. Then the water is banked for drier years. In times of drought/low rainfall, to meet the ET needs of the crops farmers need to apply more water. The same concept applies for landscape uses.
Editors note: ET crop refers to “the depth (or amount) of water needed to meet the water loss through evapotranspiration. In other words, it is the amount of water needed by the various crops to grow optimally.”
Q: What do you think about all the name-calling in the press recently?
In terms of moving forward, I would hope people would stop finger pointing – thinking their “use” of water is more important than my “use” of water. Beneficial uses of water include Ag, drinking, environmental, recreation, etc. There is a public good/benefit for all these uses. It’s not an either/or situation. We need more storage (collect/store in the north) and distribution to the south. We need desalinization. We need to release less water to the ocean. The policy needs to include capture/store water and reduce losses of rain/surface flow, in addition to reducing non-essential uses. But no one wants to pay for it. Our water system was developed with 20 million people in mind. We now have 40 million people. The infrastructure has not kept up with demand.
Q: How do we keep water shortages in perspective?
I think it’s important to realize that as an eater, I am a consumer of water. This is not an us vs. them argument. It is not a farmer/Ag issue. It’s not an urban issue. And the alternatives of not producing our own food are dismal. Import? We have no control over the production practices – it’s an environmental, economic, national security issue. The thing is, we’re supposed to be eating more fruits, vegetables, and nuts. California grows all of those, and then some. For some crops, we grow 80% or more of the nation’s supply of a given crop. It’s stunning. We need water to do that.
We want to thank Kris for her time working with us on this complicated and way-of-life threatening issue. What do you think of the California shortage? Do you feel more or less inclined to support farmers as they struggle through another dry season? What can people outside of California do to help support farmers?