When it comes to water, California’s irrigated agriculture is always under the public magnifying glass because it is the largest managed water use in the state and the economic base for many rural areas. During a prolonged drought like the current one, however, crop water comes under a microscope.
We have compiled a table to help answer questions on which crops use the most water and which crops provide the most economic “pop per drop.”
The estimates are very broad because California is so diverse in crop varieties, agricultural practices and local water availability. But the numbers are still useful for comparison purposes.
Note that the amount of water applied to a crop – “gross use” – is not the same as its “net use,” as some of that water seeps underground and replenishes aquifers or is reused downstream.
Some observations about the data:
The “truck (vegetables) and horticulture (garden plants)” crop group has the highest revenue per net water use, followed by the “fruits and nuts” group. Together, these two large crop categories account for nearly 86 percent of all crop revenue, but occupy only 47 percent of the irrigated cropland and use just 38 percent of the water applied to that land.
Fruits and nuts are grown on about one-third of the irrigated cropland and use one-third of the water, but produce nearly 45 percent of the total crop revenue.
Alfalfa, corn irrigated pasture and other livestock fodder account for nearly 37 percent of all net water crop use, but produce less than 7 percent of total crop revenue. However, the ranches and dairies that depend on these foodstuffs generate more than 22 percent of California’s agricultural production value, which totaled $45 billion in 2012.
Rice fields use a lot of water but also provide important bird habitat.
Josué Medellín-Azuara is a senior researcher and Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reminds farmers that the 2014 Farm Bill requires producers to file a Highly Erodible Land Conservation and Wetland Conservation Certification form (AD-1026) with their local USDA service center by June 1, 2015, in order to become or remain eligible for crop insurance premium support.
Most farmers already have a certification form on file since it’s required for participation in most USDA programs such as marketing assistance loans, farm storage facility loans and disaster assistance. However farmers, such as specialty crop growers who receive federal crop insurance premium support, but may not participate in other USDA programs, also must now file a certification form to maintain their crop insurance premium support.
“USDA employees are working very hard to get the word out about this new Farm Bill provision,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “While many producers will not need to take action, we want to help make sure that those who are required to act do so by the June 1 deadline. We want all eligible producers to be able to maintain their ability to protect their operations with affordable insurance.”
Producers should visit their local USDA service center and talk with their crop insurance agent before the June 1, 2015, deadline to ask questions, get additional information or learn more about conservation compliance procedures. Producers that file their form by the deadline will be eligible for federal crop insurance premium support during the 2016 reinsurance year, which begins July, 1, 2015. USDA will publish a rule outlining the linkage of conservation compliance with federal crop insurance premium support. Go to http://go.usa.gov/3Wy5J to view a copy of the rule.
The Highly Erodible Land Conservation and Wetland Conservation Certification form is available at local USDA service center or online at www.fsa.usda.gov/AD1026form. When a farmer completes this form, USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service staff will outline any additional actions that may be required for compliance with highly erodible land and wetland provisions. USDA’s Risk Management Agency, through the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, manages the federal crop insurance program that provides the modern farm safety net for America’s farmers and ranchers.
Today’s announcement was made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, which builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past six years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer. Since enactment, USDA has implemented many provisions of this critical legislation, providing disaster relief to farmers and ranchers; strengthening risk management tools; expanding access to rural credit; funding critical research; establishing innovative public-private conservation partnerships; developing new markets for rural-made products; and investing in infrastructure, housing and community facilities to help improve quality of life in rural America. For more information, visit www.usda.gov/farmbill.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced that the organic industry continues to show remarkable growth domestically and globally, with 19,474 certified organic operations in the United States and a total of 27,814 certified organic operations around the world.
According to data released by the Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) National Organic Program (NOP), the number of domestic certified organic operations increased by more than 5 percent over the last year. Since the count began in 2002, the number of domestic organic operations has increased by over 250 percent. The certified operations list is available at apps.ams.usda.gov/nop.
USDA is committed to connecting organic farmers and businesses with resources to ensure the continued growth of the organic industry. Along with programs to support conservation, provide access to loans and grants, fund organic research and education, and integrated pest management, USDA administers organic certification cost share programs to offset the costs of organic certification for U.S. producers and handlers nationwide.
Now, USDA is using funding from the 2014 Farm Bill to develop the Organic Integrity Database, a modernized certified organic operations database that will provide accurate information about all certified operations that is updated on a regular basis. The modernized system will allow anyone to confirm organic certification status using the online tool, support market research and supply chain connections, allow international verification of operator status to streamline import and export certificates, and establish technology connections with certifiers to provide more accurate and timely data. The initial launch is planned for September 2015.
Additional information about USDA resources and support for the organic sector is available on the USDA Organics Resource page at www.usda.gov/organic.
California’s drought is raising concerns about whether fresh produce grown in the Golden State could run short, potentially raising prices nationwide. The reality is that there was little jump in produce prices last year, and consumers should expect only slight increases in 2015. To appreciate why, one must understand a bit about the geography, water infrastructure and economics of California agriculture.
The drought hasn’t affected California’s diverse regions uniformly. Most crops come from two areas: the Central Valley, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys; and the coastal region, including the Salinas Valley, which is often dubbed America’s “salad bowl.”
The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys are home to significant production of alfalfa, silage, rice, cotton and other so-called field crops, but are also a major source of fresh produce, including peppers, melons, grapes, oranges, tree nuts and tomatoes. Farmers in these valleys have typically relied on a mix of pumped groundwater and surface water deliveries via both the Central Valley Project—a huge network of dams, reservoirs and canals—and the larger California State Water Project. Most farmers, however, will receive no water from the CVP for the second year in a row, and the SWP is delivering only a fraction of normal allocations.
This, coupled with much higher groundwater pumping costs as more and deeper wells are required, has forced many farmers to shift out of thirsty field crops. But this decreased production has minimal effects on food prices because California accounts for a small share of the supply, or because these crops affect food prices only indirectly. For example, fewer acres of corn silage makes it more expensive to feed milk cows, but the subsequent effect on the price of cheese is small. Fresh produce, which generates high revenue per unit of water consumed, continues to be planted.
In the coastal region and the Salinas Valley—where crops include strawberries, avocados, lettuce, celery, cauliflower, broccoli and wine grapes—farmers do not receive surface water from the CVP or the SWP. Instead, rainfall is stored in local reservoirs or underground aquifers. Lake San Antonio sits at 5% capacity, and Lake Nacimiento at 29%. But groundwater is still available and farmers find it economical, given the value of the produce they grow.
Roughly half of California’s water flows undiverted for human use. Another 40% goes to agriculture, and the remaining 10% to cities. The environment requires a certain baseline of water that cannot be reallocated in a drought. Urban use is small and hard to change much, though Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently announced 25% mandatory reduction may help some. The bulk of water cutbacks will fall on agriculture but plumbing and economics determine where they will be made.
California voters passed a $7.5 billion water bond measure last fall, with $2.7 billion going toward increased storage. Legislation allowing regulation of groundwater will be implemented gradually over the next several years. These solutions will help, eventually.
Some farmers are adjusting planting schedules and shifting crops between growing regions to adapt. Others are rerouting water from annual field crops, which can be left unplanted for a year or two, to permanent crops such as fruit and nut trees. These adjustments assure a reliable supply to consumers, but they raise prices. Even so, this is a small factor compared with other costs. Produce prices are more likely to be influenced by labor shortages and the increase in California’s minimum wage in January 2016 to $10 an hour from the current $9. Governments in the region could scare off produce farmers if they were to place tight restrictions on irrigation practices. But that seems unlikely, at least for now.
So what does this mean for consumers? Even if water remains short over the next decade, an adequate supply of fresh fruits and vegetables should not be a concern. In a global market, produce suppliers from the U.S., Mexico, Chile and beyond compete to keep prices low. The rising cost of water in California is likely to increase the cost of production over time, and that will be reflected in gradually higher retail prices. But Golden State farms will remain reliable suppliers of the produce that consumers have come to expect.
Mr. York is the CEO of Markon Cooperative, a fresh-produce food-service purchasing cooperative. Mr. Sumner is the director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.
CARLSBAD, Calif. – Every time drought strikes California, the people of this state cannot help noticing the substantial reservoir of untapped water lapping at their shores — 187 quintillion gallons of it, more or less, shimmering so invitingly in the sun.
Now, for the first time, a major California metropolis is on the verge of turning the Pacific Ocean into an everyday source of drinking water. A $1 billion desalination plant to supply booming San Diego County is under construction here and due to open as early as November, providing a major test of whether California cities will be able to resort to the ocean to solve their water woes.
In California, small ocean desalination plants are up and running in a handful of towns. Plans are far along for a large plant in Huntington Beach that would supply water to populous Orange County. A mothballed plant in Santa Barbara may soon be reactivated. And more than a dozen communities along the California coast are studying the issue.
The facility being built here will be the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, producing about 50 million gallons of drinking water a day. So it is under scrutiny for whether it can operate without major problems.
“It was not an easy decision to build this plant,” said Mark Weston, chairman of the agency that supplies water to towns in San Diego County. “But it is turning out to be a spectacular choice. What we thought was on the expensive side 10 years ago is now affordable.”
Still, the plant illustrates many of the hard choices that states and communities face as they consider whether to tap the ocean for drinking water.
In San Diego County, which depends on imported freshwater supplies from the Colorado River and from Northern California, water bills already average about $75 a month. The new plant will drive them up by $5 or so to secure a new supply equal to about 7 or 8 percent of the county’s water consumption.
The plant will use a huge amount of electricity, increasing the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming, which further strains water supplies. And local environmental groups, which fought the plant, fear a substantial impact on sea life.
The company developing the plant here, Poseidon Water, has promised to counter the environmental damage. For instance, it will pay into a California program that finances projects to offset emissions of greenhouse gases.
Still, some scientists and environmental groups contend that if rainy conditions return to California, the plant here and others like it could become white elephants. Santa Barbara, northwest of Los Angeles, built its desalination plant a quarter-century ago and promptly shut it down when rains returned.
Australia is a more spectacular case: It built six huge desalination plants during a dry spell and has largely idled four of them though water customers remain saddled with several billion dollars’ worth of construction bills.
“Our position is that seawater desalination should be the option of last resort,” said Sean Bothwell, an attorney with the California Coastkeeper Alliance, an environmental coalition that has battled California’s turn toward the technology. “We need to fully use all the sustainable supplies that we have available to us first.”
The rising interest in desalination is not simply a matter of desperation, though that is certainly a factor in states with growing populations and few obvious sources of new water. Advocates say the technology has improved markedly over the past 20 years. While the water can cost twice as much as conventionally treated water, it is still less than a penny a gallon, and that is starting to look tolerable in parched regions.
Desalination has grown into a huge industry, with more than 15,000 plants operating around the world. Many are small and treat brackish groundwater, requiring much less energy and costing less than seawater treatment. The United States already has scores of these smaller plants.
Huge plants treating seawater have been rare here, but they exist elsewhere, particularly in chronically dry regions like the Middle East. In little more than a decade, Israel has moved from perpetual water crisis to a point where it will soon get half its water from desalination. Israeli engineers have become sought-after partners in many cities, and are involved in the Carlsbad project.
The technological approach being employed here, and in most recent plants, is called reverse osmosis. It involves forcing seawater through a membrane with holes so tiny that the water molecules can pass through but larger salt molecules cannot.
A huge amount of energy is required to create enough pressure to shove the water through the membranes. But clever engineering has cut energy use of the plants in half in 20 years, as well as improving their reliability.
Future desalination plants also have the potential to blend well with the rising percentage of renewable power on the electric grids in California and Texas. Since treated water can be stored, the plants could be dialed up at times when electricity from wind or solar power is plentiful, and later dialed down.
However, as interest in desalination spreads, California and other states confront major decisions about the environmental rules for the new plants.
Both the intake of seawater and the disposal of excess salt into the ocean can harm sea life. Sucking in huge amounts of seawater, for instance, can kill fish eggs and larvae by the billions. Technical solutions exist, but they can drive up costs, and it is still unclear how strict California regulators will be with the plant developers.
Environmental groups argue that the embrace of desalination represents a failure to manage freshwater effectively. They want much more aggressive programs focused on conservation and on reuse of existing supplies, pointing out that half of municipal water here still goes to grass and other lawn plants. These arguments have sometimes carried the day, as they did when voters in Santa Cruz effectively killed a desalination plant.
Mr. Weston, the chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority, said his agency and others in the area had gone a long way toward embracing conservation. Since 1990, water use in the county has been cut 12 percent, even as the population has jumped 30 percent.
Long worried about water scarcity, the San Diego region helped to pioneer measures that ultimately spread across the country, including low-flow bathroom fixtures, more efficient washing machines and other innovations.
But these steps have not been enough to secure the region’s water future, Mr. Weston said. Thus, the water authority decided years ago, long before the current drought began, to move forward on the desalination plant.
It is in the late stages of construction, by an artificial bay opening to the sea in Carlsbad. On a recent day, the faint smell of glue wafted through the air as workers sealed joints on huge pipes. When it goes into operation, the plant will pump water through 16,040 cylinders containing the membranes that trap salt.
Peter MacLaggan, a vice president of Poseidon Water who is overseeing the project, said the plant was in some ways a response to longstanding public interest in desalination.
“Every time California has a drought, we get letters to the editor pointing out that there’s a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean,” he said as waves broke on the shoreline in the distance. “They say, ‘Hey, guys, what are we waiting for?’”
Santa Barbara, a chic tourist destination on the coast, could face severe water shortages within a year if the drought continues. The city is on the verge of spending $40 million to reactivate the long-mothballed desalination plant there.
That step would drive water bills up sharply, acknowledged the mayor, Helene Schneider. But, she added, “no water is a worse option than very expensive water.”
Seems like everybody is jumping into the red-hot California water debate.
Ever since Gov. Jerry Brown announced on April 1 that cities like Hanford and Lemoore would be forced to conserve in a big way to cut the state’s water use by 25 percent, the accusations have been flying, with major non-California blogs, newspapers and pundits jumping into the ring last week and asking whether California agriculture – the largest private source of jobs in Kings County and a $45 billion industry statewide – is sharing the pain.
That, in turn, has sent agriculture into full defense mode, with trade and advocacy groups churning out press releases and fact sheets purporting to set the record straight.
Just last week alone, Carissa Sauer, spokeswoman for the Almond Board of California, sent out multiple emails to the Sentinel and other media outlets. The emails offered a robust affirmation of almonds against critics who say the nuts are water hogs that suck up too much out of the state’s precious-but-dwindling aquifers.
Sauer nearly apologized in a final email on Friday, promising that it would be “the last email I send you this week.”
So why all the fuss?
Part of it stems from the high value California voters place on environmental preservation. Poll after poll shows Californians overall strongly support ecosystem protection laws – including the ag pumping limitations from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta that Kings County agricultural leaders often criticize.
As a result, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources, about half of California’s dammed or controlled water supply is allocated for environmental purposes, with about 40 percent for agriculture and 10 percent for urban use.
Yet, as many point out, almost all of Brown’s mandated cuts announced earlier this month go after the 10 percent urban piece of the pie.
That has put agriculture squarely center-stage, with a blindingly bright spotlight being turned on what farmers do, how they irrigate and how much water it takes to produce each one of the staggering variety of crops churned out by the San Joaquin Valley.
For his part, Brown has defended agriculture, noting that hundreds of thousands of acres have been fallowed and thousands of jobs lost due to the drought.
For Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of Hanford-based agricultural advocacy group California Water Alliance, all the hubbub represents an opportunity to put the public relations pedal to the metal.
“The Central Valley farmer has to speak directly to the consumer,” she said. “There has to be a more proactive approach from the farming community.”
Bettencourt went on a blitz last week, tweeting multiple times, issuing a press release and doing interviews.
One tweet included a link to a Los Angeles Times graphic showing how much water-per-ounce various foods used. The upshot? Almonds, at 48.6 gallons per ounce, aren’t the worst water-hogging protein source.
According to the graphic, that title goes to beef, which, because of the sheer amount of hay acreage needed to feed cattle, has one of the highest per-ounce water uses out there: 106 gallons.
All this was meant to put in context other stories and blog posts claiming that almonds are Water Enemy #1.
The assault on almonds has prompted some writers – including some not directly tied to agriculture – to pen reality checks. Some articles have suggested that pronouncements about California agriculture from distant publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post reveal an ignorance of the complexities of California’s economy.
“I think you’ve got a lot of reporters that don’t normally cover food and water,” Bettencourt said. “They’re diving in with 10 percent knowledge, which is just enough to be dangerous.”
Medium.com writer Steven Johnson, writing a piece in which he pointed out how many edible goodies California sends to the rest of the U.S. and the world, had this to say:
“The average New York Times reader … from the Upper West Side [of Manhattan] might want to think about the canned tomatoes, avocados and almonds in his or her kitchen before denouncing the irresponsible lifestyles of the California [residents].”
Johnson was actually trying to make a point about how much more water California agriculture uses compared to the state’s urban residents. He is among those calling for wider use of super-efficient irrigation methods.
At the Almond Board, Sauer took a different tack, arguing that almonds have one of the highest dollar values per drop of water of any crop.
By that standard, a recent University of California, Davis, study determined that the state’s almond harvest sustains 97,000 Central Valley jobs.
For Bettencourt, all of this demands that growers engage with others – including those in California’s skeptical environmental community – who are asking painful questions about the challenge drought poses to the state’s natural beauty, food productivity and way of life.
“Drought is turning up the heat big-time,” she said. “You’re seeing the shifting conversation.”
Finger-pointing tends to sharpen during times of crisis.
Exhibit A: California, now entering its fourth year of drought.
If you’ve followed media coverage of the drought lately – which has spiraled to new heights since Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state’s first mandatory cuts in urban water use last week – you’ve probably heard that agriculture was “spared” the knife.
An interview with Gov. Brown on PBS Newshour perfectly encapsulates the debate:
“Well, Governor, encouraging people to decrease watering their lawns seems like literally a drop in the bucket, when 80 percent of the water … is from the agriculture sector,” the reporter starts out. “We know that it costs an enormous amount of water to have a single almond to eat … Is it time for us to start zeroing in on the largest customers or users of water?”
While it’s true that agriculture is California’s biggest water user, and that some crops require more water than others, it’s unfair and inaccurate to suggest, first, that agriculture was passed over, and second, that a small nut is primarily to blame for sucking the state dry. It’s more complicated than that.
Farmers on the front line
Until now, agriculture has borne the brunt of California’s drought.
Most farmers – along with two-thirds of California’s population – receive water allocations from the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, a complex, interconnected system of reservoirs, aqueducts, and pumping plants that deliver water, including melted snow from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to all points south.
In 2014, those allocations dipped to near record lows – zero in some cases – due to paltry rainfall and snowpack. The diminished supplies cost farmers about $2.2 billion and eliminated more than 17,000 jobs. More than 500,000 acres of cropland were fallowed.
Beyond the nut
Then there’s the nut. If anything has come to symbolize the drought in the past week, it’s the almond, which, as you may have heard, requires a gallon of water to grow. But here’s the rub. People really like almonds, and California grows two-thirds of the world’s supply. Further, the state grows about half of the country’s fruits and vegetables, and almonds aren’t even the most water-intensive.
“Pointing the blame at any single crop is just too reductive. When dealing with a complex system like California’s water cycle, you have to think holistically if you hope to make positive change. While the system is complex, there’s something very simple driving California’s water system off the rails: stupid laws.”
Improve the market
He’s absolutely correct. We need to tease out the provisions that are clogging California’s water system and establish incentives that will allow the market to respond to scarcity – well before aquifers are drained and our life-sustaining ecosystems begin to gasp.
In the case of groundwater, for the water market to function optimally, communities will also need to get a better handle on the sustainable yield of their basins. This needs to begin now.
Inevitably, agriculture will need to do more to increase California’s resiliency to drought. Everyone will.
It’s time we put those pointing fingers to work on a more worthwhile task – rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on real solutions.
Droughts like the one gripping California now are inevitable, though climate change makes their frequency and severity unpredictable. We need to change the way we use water, especially outdoors, to cope now and into the future. Simple steps, such as not overwatering lawns, will go a long way. Replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping will go even further.
Millions of acre-feet of surface water will not go to farms this year. The roughly half-million acres of farmland not planted last year (of roughly 9 million irrigated acres in the state) will likely expand this year. The state’s two biggest water projects already have cut deliveries by between 50 percent and 100 percent.
Thousands of other farmers with long-standing water rights and good supplies even in dry years are on notice from the State Water Resources Control Board that water may be left in streams and rivers to meet the most basic needs for people and native fish – and that they should think hard before planting crops in this fourth year of drought.
If this drought deepens so that it becomes difficult to provide water for essential human needs, the state ultimately could use its authority to further limit agricultural water use. But we should stretch urban supplies as far as possible before we take that drastic action.
Agriculture is the economic engine of rural California, and the entire state enjoys the variety of safe, nutritious food that California farmers produce. There are many gallons of water, applied by a farmer, behind each of our meals.
Some argue that California agriculture uses too much water to grow crops for export such as almonds and pistachios, and suggest the state ban such crops.
Where should the state draw that line? Should the state judge the worthiness of crops based on water use? Nutritional value? Profit per acre-foot of water used? Is broccoli acceptable, but not wine grapes? How do we account for the tremendous waterfowl habitat created by rice fields?
It is not the proper role of the state to tell farmers what to grow. Those who plant almonds, pistachios and other permanent crops take the risk that they can keep orchards and vineyards irrigated year after year. Some of those bets may not pay off.
Other critics argue that the governor should halt groundwater pumping to prevent the depletion of aquifers. Groundwater is a concern, and we need better management. But we are not going to run out of groundwater this year or next.
Where overpumping is causing subsidence, local governments can pass ordinances to restrict pumping. New state laws already are forcing local governments to organize themselves to put plans in place in the next five years for sustainable pumping and recharge.
California has always leaned on its tremendous groundwater resources in dry years. To swiftly and unilaterally restrict farmers from that resource would only worsen economic devastation – unnecessarily, in most cases. Groundwater is a highly localized resource and needs to be managed as such.
This drought has the power to divide us, but it may also bring us together. A 25 percent cutback is not too much to ask in a state where overwatering is often the biggest problem plaguing lawns.
We don’t we use the same kinds of phones or drive the same kinds of cars as we did a generation ago. Why shouldn’t we also modernize our landscapes?
Come the next inevitable drought, the change will do us good.