Report Shares Ideas on How Farmers Can Save Delta Water

California farmers can grow more food and fiber with less water, according to a new analysis released Sept. 8 by the Pacific Institute, Oakland, Calif.

The report, "More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California – A Special Focus on the Delta," offers a comprehensive analysis of how to maintain a strong agricultural economy while improving the efficiency of water use and reducing groundwater overdraft and water withdrawals from the critically threatened Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Almost half of the water used for California's agriculture comes from rivers that once flowed to the Delta, and more than half of Californians rely on water conveyed through the Delta for at least some of their water supply. This important region provides habitat for 700 native plant and animal species and is now in a serious, long-term crisis, with declining populations of threatened and endangered fish; increasing risk of levee failure; rising seas and changes in flood/drought patterns due to climate changes; and worsening water quality. A key common finding of recent court decisions, scientific assessments, and the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force is that we are taking too much water from the Delta.

"Given that agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of Delta water consumption, no economic, environmental, or policy assessment can be complete without a serious examination of agricultural water withdrawals from the Delta," said Heather Cooley, senior research associate at the Pacific Institute and lead author of the report. "We are already facing reductions in the amount of Delta water available for agriculture, and the consequences of sudden disruptions are far worse than if we take a proactive approach to improving efficiency."

The new study (funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) finds that agricultural water-use efficiency can be improved through careful planning, adopting existing, cost-effective technologies and management practices, and implementing feasible policy changes. This analysis evaluates four scenarios for improving water-use efficiency, addressing what crops are grown (Crop Shifting) and how they are grown (Advanced Irrigation Management, Smart Irrigation Scheduling, and Efficient Irrigation Technology). All four scenarios show substantial potential water savings ranging from 600,000 -- 3,400,000 acre-feet of water annually.

The report provides recommendations to overcome some of the financial, legal, and institutional barriers that can hinder farmers from implementing such adaptations and investments. For example, the state can offer tax exemptions and rebates for farmers who upgrade to more efficient irrigation systems. Courts and regulators can apply California's water-rights laws more rationally and effectively to ensure water is being used reasonably and beneficially. Water use measurement and monitoring should be more rigorous. And misguided federal and state subsidies that encourage wasteful use of water can be redesigned to encourage efficiency and conservation.

The Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities.

Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) Executive Director Timothy Quinn issued the following statement regarding the report: "We agree that California must invest in water use efficiency in all sectors and at every level. It is imperative for our future. But this latest report from Pacific Institute does not offer practical approaches to achieve increased water use efficiency. Further, the report sidesteps the most pressing issue before us – how to improve the sustainability of our water supply infrastructure so it can work for the environment as well as our economy.

"The Pacific Institute report completely ignores some of the most pressing problems facing California resource managers. ACWA believes the best way to restore the Delta while keeping our economy intact is to modernize our water storage and conveyance system as part of a comprehensive solution that invests in every water management tool at our disposal, including water use efficiency.

ACWA is a statewide association of public agencies whose 450 members are responsible for about 90 percent of the water delivered in California.

Featured Webinar