Environmental Protection

Pacific Institute: Water Efficiency Key to Farm Growth

New research from the Pacific Institute shows that a strong and healthy California agricultural sector can flourish despite diminishing water supply and future uncertainty from climate change but only if new steps are taken to significantly increase the efficiency of water use in California fields.

The new report, "Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future," quantifies the potential to maintain and even increase agricultural productivity while reducing agricultural water withdrawals and vulnerability to drought and climate change. The analysis estimates that potential water savings of between 4.5 - 6 million acre-feet each year can be achieved statewide by comprehensive changes in the irrigation technologies and management practices. This savings is 19 times the amount of water returned to the environment through the recent Delta smelt ruling.

The institute looked at the following water management scenarios:

  • Efficient irrigation technology – shifting a fraction of the crops irrigated by flooding fields to sprinkler and drip systems;
  • Improved irrigation scheduling – using local climate and soil information to help farmers irrigate more precisely; and
  • Regulated deficit irrigation – applying less water to certain crops during drought-tolerant growth stages to save water and improve crop quality.

Peter Gleick, Ph.D., president of the Pacific Institute, said, “These are technologies and management strategies that we could implement now, if we would recognize the urgency and have the will to make the tough decisions and policy changes.”

“As drought becomes more common in California, it is critical that we invest in resources that are ‘drought-proof,’” said Juliet Christian-Smith, Ph.D., senior research associate of the institute and coauthor of the report. “California can’t be blind to the management mistakes that led to the widespread collapse of agriculture in Australia’s Murray-Darling basin as a result of severe drought. There, pricing and allocation policies had allowed water to be seen as an abundant resource even as signs of over-allocation and environmental decline were obvious.”

The report features several “early adopters” from the agricultural community, including Craig McNamara, owner and operator of Sierra Orchards, who has converted many fields to drip irrigation and installed tailwater recovery ponds to capture excess water runoff.

Key to success in making water efficiency improvements for farmers like McNamara has been financial support from federal, state, and local programs. The new report makes specific recommendations to expand this support, such as property and sales tax exemptions, rebates for efficient irrigation equipment, greater federal support through Farm Bill conservation programs, and pricing policies that generate funds that can be invested in local farms.

The report cites one of the primary challenges to managing water issues in California as the lack of a consistent, comprehensive, and accurate estimate of actual water use, by crop, sector, or region. “In a state with such contentious and difficult water challenges, the failure to accurately account for water use contributes directly to the failure to manage it sustainably,” said Heather Cooley, senior research associate of the Pacific Institute and coauthor of the report. “We need a statewide system to monitor and exchange water use data, including groundwater.”

Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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