My recent posts outlining a recommended water agenda for Governor Brown, included several recommendations to promote water use efficiency in the agricultural sector. A new report prepared by the new Delta Watermaster outlines very similar opportunities.
The Delta Watermaster was created in the legislative reform package passed at the end of 2009. This Watermaster report -- addressing the potential for the state’s constitutional prohibition on “unreasonable use” of water to encourage agricultural water conservation -- represents perhaps the first significant product from this new entity.
The report mentions several opportunities to improve agricultural water use efficiency. Here’s one I find particularly compelling. The report points out that many agricultural delivery systems “are older and lack the flexibility to provide ‘on-demand’ irrigation deliveries at the times water can be used more efficiently. Without such flexibility, farmers are unable to make best use of irrigation scheduling to reduce water use.”
So why is “on demand” irrigation important? Ask yourself what would happen to your energy use if you couldn’t decide when to heat or cool your home. If your utility told you that you were allowed to heat or air condition your home only in the early morning hours of every day, it would prevent you from using your energy efficiently. You’d feel that you had to heat or cool your home just in case the day proved to be very hot or cold. Well this is the position farmers are in if their irrigation district can’t schedule deliveries. These farmers are forced to irrigate when they can, rather than when their crops truly need it. It won’t surprise you that water use in these delivery systems is higher than elsewhere. In a state with limited water resources and damaged fisheries and river ecosystems, that sounds pretty unreasonable to me.
Finding opportunities to promote efficiency in all sectors of the agricultural community has been a challenge over the past several decades. In the urban sector, the 20 by 2020 program, the California Urban Water Conservation Council, and other ambitious efforts have created a system of water efficiency requirements for all California cities. However, no similarly effective program exists to encourage water use efficiency across the board in California’s agricultural industry.
It’s important to note that some agricultural water users are highly efficient. For example, NRDC often disagrees with the Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency regarding Delta protections issues. However, some of the farmers in these portions of the Central Valley manage their water very carefully. (I’ve written here about encouraging developments in this part of the Central Valley.)
The problem is that efficient farmers are the exception, rather than the rule. This Pacific Institute report identifies agricultural water use efficiency as a very large potential source of water. In fact, agricultural efficiency has as much potential – or more – than urban efficiency. Untying – or cutting -- the Gordian Knot of agricultural water use efficiency is one of the keys to helping California find the water supplies it needs to meet its future needs and restore its aquatic environment and fisheries.
There’s a paradox here. Water gained through agricultural water use efficiency is among the most affordable sources of water in the state. But some agricultural water users object that efficiency investments are not cost effective. The problem is that many California farmers have highly subsidized water. Some receive their water for free. Of course some of these farmers argue that conservation is not cost effective – just as it wouldn’t be cost effective for you to buy an efficient new home furnace or air conditioner if your energy use was free. Again, something about that sounds unreasonable.
Remember – unlike energy, California’s water is a resource owned by the public. Water users have a legal – a constitutional – obligation to use water efficiently. Perhaps the state’s reasonable use doctrine can help create a truly state-wide agricultural water use efficiency program.