We just returned from a drive up and down the San Joaquin Valley. Being reared on a California almond and water ranch, I have a long-standing interest in water and California agriculture. Consequently, I always view our trip as an opportunity to read the pulse of California’s water situation. This year the landscape was fresh and green from recent and abundant rains. The air was so clean we could see the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, 100 miles to the east. This was such a relief compared to past trips which were during years of drought, when the landscape was desiccated and enveloped with polluted skies.
One notable and repeated image during this ride was the number of almond orchards being ripped out, amid vast areas of new plantings. The other notable image was the number of signs complaining about water running out to the ocean instead of being transferred to the Valley's ranchers. Signs saying, “stop dumping our water into the ocean” are a new addition to other signs that stated “stop the Congress created dust bowl” and “food grows where the water flows”. What gives?
Water and California have a complicated and controversial marriage that may best be summarized by the adage that is attributed to Mark Twain: ‘whisky is for drinkin, water is for fightin over’. One premise of this blog is to ask the question: do the people of the modern state of California, whose $3.5T economy is among the top four in the world, need to continue to fight over water? Won’t we be better off if we use it more efficiently and share it among our many legitimate stakeholders during good times and bad?
Figure 1 Tundra swans and snow geese on flooded corn field on Bouldin Island. January, 2023. Photo by Joe Verfaillie.
On one hand, I appreciate the goods and services produced by our farmers and ranchers and am sympathetic to their needs and challenges. It is true our ranchers and farmers are providing the world with healthy nuts, fruits and vegetables that are grown nowhere else in our nation. On the other hand, I find some of their complaints disingenuous and detrimental to solving Our, the State’s, water problem. At present, agriculture uses about 80% of the water to produce about $50 Billion in revenue, a small fraction of the State’s gross domestic product.
There is abundant evidence that current water use policies by the agricultural system are mining and mismanaging our water in an unsustainable manner. For perspective, almond acreage approached 1.6M acres in 2021, up from 0.5 M acres in 1995. This represents a tripling in the acreage of this high value, perennial nut crop in under 20 years! This is a perennial nut crop that that uses about 1 meter of water per unit area per year in a region that gets about 300 to 400 mm of rainfall per year. The regularity of the supply of water to the dams and canals by the snowpack and reservoirs has changed in recent years with the many droughts we have experienced. Many ranchers are choosing to mine water from the underground aquifers with deep wells. The electric power needed to lift water hundreds of meters is energetically and economically expensive; moving water across the State uses about 20% of the electricity, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (https://www.ppic.org/publication/water-use-in-california/). This depletion of the aquifers is causing the land to subside, or in words to sink. This movement of land is forcing the state to spend $30M to repair the Friant-Kern canal, a major conveyor of water in the San Joaquin Valley. This depletion of the aquifer has also caused 1500 wells for drinking water to go dry; many of these domestic wells serve the homes of the farm workers who bring the crops to our tables.
As an environmental scientist I recognize that we must consider the other demands and needs of our water, too, if we are to avoid a ‘tragedy of the commons’. Questions and issues that interest me most revolve around how to best use water across many sectors and how to do so in a fair and sustainable manner.
For perspective let’s look back and see how we got into this pickle. Our immigrant ancestors realized that California had vast potential to grow fruits, nuts and vegetables like nowhere else, if there was only the water. The state was blessed with a geography that had snow covered mountains nearby. If we could capture that snow melt during the rainless growing season, as it ran down the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds to the ocean, we could irrigate the fields and produce a rich bounty. Investments by local irrigation districts and state and federal governments built canal systems fed by dams and reservoirs, like Shasta, Oroville, and Friant-Kern. These projects provided a new and expanded supply of water to the many independent yeoman farmers and vast corporations farming in the Central Valley. With this water, they turned land in the San Joaquin Valley, once occupied by jack rabbits and tumbleweeds, into verdant fields of cotton, almonds, walnuts, grapes, alfalfa, apricots, citrus and pistachios. This investment provided farmers with cheap and highly subsidized water to feed us and turn a profit. And, in turn it gave the citizen taxpayer hopes for abundant, healthy and affordable food. In the previous century, this irrigated agricultural system drove the economic engine that led to the growth of the state’s population and the expansion of the University of California.
While this dream sounds wonderful on paper, it was not without costs, nor was it sustainable. History teaches us that many civilizations based on irrigated agriculture were doomed to fail. Salts build up in the soils if they are not purged from the root systems with excess water. This purging of salts is difficult to do in semi-arid climates that experience drought and have limited supplies of water.
What should we do? The current state of the State in 2023 is much different from the one when the water projects were built last century. My suggestion is that we consider options and policies that allow us to share water in a fair and optimal way for all stakeholders. To do so, we can think of our water system like the faucet and drain of a sink. We control the inputs by turning the knobs of the faucet and the outputs by adjusting the plug on the drain. As we turn the knobs we have to take a complex systems approach and be careful and be cognizant of unintended consequences.
Let’s return to the original observation that stimulated this blog: Are we wasting water that naturally flows into the ocean? Those with a systems knowledge and appreciation of the State’s hydrology would answer no. Natural water flows are needed to maintain a hydraulic barrier that keeps salt water from extending up the San Francisco Bay Estuary. This natural flow of water provides fresh water for the cities along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, the agricultural fields in the Delta and the abundant fowl, fish and flora in these regions. Dams and reservoirs on the upper reaches of the watershed have multiple uses. They can’t be kept full during the rain season as they also play a critical role in flood protection.
What are some options and suggestions to share Our water among the set of legitimate stakeholders, farms, cities, and nature?
First, to achieve and maintain abundant natural flows of rivers into the ocean we need to manage forests in the watersheds better. At present many of our forests are overgrown. Hence, they are evaporating more water than they would have in the past, making them subject to drought stress and vulnerable to insects, pathogens and fire, and yielding less runoff to the watershed.
Second, I have learned it is possible to share water and use it more efficiently. Shared and efficient water use in Israel and Australia can be good models. They are supplementing conventional water supplies with rainwater harvesting, effluent and grey water reuse.
Third, busts and booms in rainfall are normal. Yet, we seem to be surprised when droughts and excess rainfall occurs. We need to design and implement infrastructure, policies and pricing of water for the conditions of the driest and wettest years, not average conditions.
Fourth, we need to consider the new situation on water supply and demand in a warmer world. In a warmer world, the snow pack will be at higher elevations and may not be as extensive as in the past. Yet, there are many clever knobs we can turn to help improve our water budget. One set of our colleagues is experimenting with new ways to flood fields and orchards during the wet years to help recover depleted aquifers. Other groups are deploying solar panels over the canals to reduce evaporative losses and provide solar energy for pumping. We can use weather forecasting to manage the timing of reservoir charging and discharging actively. And, we can reduce agricultural water use by changing the price of water which will alter which crops are planted, the amount that are planted and the amount of fallow land during dry years. Do we need to grow 1.6 M acres of almonds, and produce almond milk with excess production, in a semi-arid climate with highly subsidized and limited water? Should we be growing more than one-half million acres of irrigated alfalfa in a semi-arid climate and sending some of it to Saudi Arabia and China to feed their dairy cows? These are the questions society and policy makers must ask and resolve, and thereby change our water system to reflect a new view.
What is the takeaway? We can share water better and thrive together in California if there is the political will, as we have the knowledge and technology to do so. Going forward, let’s make Mark Twain’s quote an anachronism instead of a truism.