Report: Delta Farms Can Grow More with Less Water

California farmers can grow more food and fiber with less water, according to a new analysis 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.

"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.

Many in the agricultural sector, such as Craig McNamara, owner of Sierra Orchards in Winters, Calif., have been using these techniques, which can both be cost-effective and increase productivity. "We can create water savings that ensure the future success of agriculture in California," said McNamara, "and it can be done without adversely affecting the economic productivity of the agricultural sector."

"While some farmers have been moving in the right direction, growing more food with less water under difficult conditions, we must help accelerate this progress," Heather Cooley said.

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.

"Water savings achieved through conservation and efficiency improvements are just as effective as new, centralized water storage, and are often far less expensive," said Juliet Christian-Smith, Ph.D., senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, and co-author of the report. "If we look at these water savings in 'dam equivalents,' the four scenarios save between 3 and 20 sizable new dams with fewer social and environmental impacts."

"No decision about new or modified infrastructure should be made without evaluating the ability to reduce its size and cost through water-use efficiency improvements," said Peter Gleick, Ph.D., president of the Pacific Institute, and co-author of the report. "Our findings show that it is possible – indeed, far preferable – to take less water and still improve the Delta's economic and environmental conditions." Gleick went on to say, "The Governor's Delta Vision Task Force has been trying to develop sustainable solutions to the crisis in the Delta, but there have been no previous comprehensive assessments of the potential to use water more efficiently. This report fills that critical gap."

This new report builds on the Pacific Institute's earlier 2003 study, Waste Not, Want Not, which provided a comprehensive statewide analysis of the conservation potential in California's urban sector, finding that existing, cost-effective technologies and policies can reduce current urban demand by more than 30 percent. A more recent study, California 2030: An Efficient Future, concluded that the state as a whole could reduce water use in urban and agricultural sectors by 20 percent overall with existing technologies, even with a growing population and economy. This new report is the first part of a larger effort to determine the potential for agricultural water efficiency statewide, to be released in the early 2009.

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