Severe drought

California uses highway signs to state the obvious. Some people think the call to "limit" outdoor watering when farmers have been completely cut off from irrigation water is a bit ironic.

State regulators defend California agriculture

There are times as an Ag communicator that we should, if we’re being honest, highlight when state regulators come to the defense of farmers and agriculture in general.

That happened in a recent media-only conference call with several California agency bosses related to the drought and an executive order issued by California Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr. ordering urban residents to cut their water use by 25 percent.

Interspersed in prepared statements, talking points and responses to media questions was a defense of California agriculture by the heads of three prominent state agencies.

Those I wish to recognize include Department of Water and Resources Director Mark Cowin; Felicia Marcus, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board; and, California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross.

Several times during a call that probably stretched two hours (I don’t know, I hung up at the 90-minute mark after my two questions were answered by Cowin) I heard reporters parrot the oft-used falsehood that California agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water.

In each case the premise was this: Why aren’t farmers being asked to conserve if they’re the ones using most of the state’s water?

Cowin’s own agency has the numbers; they estimate that of the total amount of surface water allotted in California, 10 percent is used by urban dwellers, 40 percent by farmers and 50 percent for environmental (fish and wildlife) purposes.

On several occasions, I heard Cowin, Marcus and Ross verbally defend agriculture as reporters presented their false premises and then asked their questions based on those premises.

The very first question pressed state officials on why the Governor’s order seemed to target urban water users while largely ignoring agricultural users.

Cowin said while there are no direct reductions placed on farmers in the latest action, it does mandate new, specific reporting procedures related to Ag water use.

To the premise that agriculture is getting a “free ride” in the Governor’s order, Cowin said, “Ag water use has been significantly affected during this drought… The state board (Marcus’ board) has implemented curtailments on some water rights holders throughout the Central Valley and elsewhere, so Ag water use is definitely being affected here.”

To a similar question, Marcus responded: “They (farmers) are already cut back under much harsher circumstances through the seniority (water rights) system.”

To yet another question, Cowin openly disagreed with a reporter’s question and premise, saying: “We are asking Ag water users to conserve water. In fact, the enforcement in this case includes curtailing water available to them.”

CDFA Secretary Ross likewise defended the thrifty practices farmers have employed when irrigating crops.

Ross defended almond growers, who in recent months have been on the receiving end of some rather brutal attacks for irrigation water use.

Without skipping a beat, Ross pointed out that almonds are grown in California:

  • Because markets are available;
  • Because demand continues to increase;
  • Because of the availability and price of land and water; and
  • Because of the lack of labor needed to produce tree nuts in a marketplace that is moving towards more automation.

Ross highlighted California’s unique climate and soil conditions that make it one of the few places in the world where such crops can be grown efficiently.

Add Ross’s quick response to the reporter with her matter-of-fact explanation of how California agriculture has already suffered greatly by pointing out acres fallowed, the human cost of lost jobs and the direct costs suffered by the state’s economy. She too deserves a round of applause from California farmers.

Follow me on Twitter @ToddFitchette

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