USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks in Fresno Calif on the social responsibility agriculture plays in feeding the world

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks in Fresno, Calif. on the social responsibility agriculture plays in feeding the world.

Water not available to meet social responsibilities

Just as the State of California was readying growers for what they pretty much expected – announcement of a 5 percent water allocation for State Water Project users – the heavenly faucets began to open and it started to rain and snow on the Golden State.

Don’t get your hopes up just yet though. It’s early… very early and Mother Nature is a fickle one.

Some estimates put the current drought in California as the worst since recordkeeping began in the late 19th Century. Even so, Shasta Lake in northern California, which is at its lowest point in years, is still roughly 100 feet higher in elevation than it was at its lowest point in 1977 when drought nearly claimed the 4.55 million acre foot reservoir and houseboats were left high and dry. I only wish I had taken pictures of it instead of dropping rocks from Shasta Dam into the water nearly 300 feet below.

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Today California has more than 38 million people, 16 million more than it had in 1977. That requires water for their taps, pools, fountains and the food they eat.

There are tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of fewer acres today of farmland in California than there were in 1977. While farming practices have intensified and more is produced per acre now than then, it is also done on much less water. Rice growers, for instance, have continued to reduce their overall use of water to the point that University of California researchers say that alfalfa consumes more water on an annual basis than does rice.

A big consumer of water in California is the urban user. Urban development consumes about 40,000 acres of farmland a year in California, according to the American Farmland Trust.

On California’s Central Coast underground aquifers are becoming so depleted that experts fear city wells will soon dry up. The same is happening all over the state. Further compounding coastal issues is saltwater intrusion because of sinking water tables.

Growers in increasing numbers have embraced drip and micro irrigation technologies, proving that agriculture will eagerly embrace such water saving technology where practical and profitable. Some might argue that it is now the urban user's turn to embrace water-saving technology on a much wider and significant scope than has previously been employed.

While it is true that California’s aging water infrastructure system is in dire need of serious and costly upgrades to address long-term concerns, the short-term fix could be easier if regulators and legislators would use common sense and stop allowing the ridiculous export of millions of acre feet of water to the ocean without first tapping it for beneficial use of humans.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told a Fresno, Calif. audience that California and the United States have a social responsibility to help feed the world. We can’t do that without water.

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