Water Use Doesn't Equal Water Waste

by Senator Andy Vidak
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Published in the Kern County Valley Ag Voice – April 2014 Issue

There seems to be a big fish story going around California these days that farmers waste water.  Some folks seem to be hell bent for leather trying to start a new water war here in California, this time pitting farmers against fish.  Most of this noise is coming from  radical environmentalists and their pals in big cities like Los Angeles.  And that’s kind of screwy; folks from a city that’s built in a desert complaining about water going to crop lands in the Central Valley.   Then again, when you think about it, most fish stories are kind of screwy, aren’t they?

But this new fish story, that there’s a war underway between farmers versus the fish, that’s a real whopper.  First off, agriculture is one of the few big industries left in California.   Our agriculture industry supports millions of people and feeds hundreds of millions more.  In my book, that’s not a waste of water, nor does it make farmers the culprits for our current water shortage.  But if you want to talk water wars, let’s not forget history.  Los Angeles had a water war all of its own with the Owens Valley.  Let’s not forget that the Owens Valley was sacrificed just so Los Angeles could grow.   When you’ve got people trying to make that case that irrigation canals in farmland is a sign of waste, but swimming pools in the desert are A-Okay,  it ‘s pretty clear someone’s telling a fish story.  

Look, this is some serious business. The stakes are high. Tossing around terms such as calling Central Valley farmers “water hogs” just because they use water has taken its toll on policy making up in Sacramento.  “Water hogs” and “water wasters” are exactly the kinds of name-calling the radical environmentalists have been spouting off for decades now in order to prevent new dams and storage reservoirs from being built in California. And, while it’s true that California agriculture uses a lot of water, that’s about as keen an observation as pointing out that automobiles use a lot of gasoline.  Is it really so hard to understand, even for city folk, that you need water to grow crops? 

But for this water war, we’re all supposed to be on the side of the fish.   The radical environmentalist crowd points to things like how California’s salmon fishing is in decline.  Apparently, there were some 5,700 salmon boats working off the California coast in 1980, and there’s only some 1000 left today.  Now, I hate to see anybody lose their job or livelihood, but maybe it’s because there’s some connection between all those boats pulling salmon out of the water back in the day and the fact that we’ve got so fewer salmon boats today.  But we all know a good fisherman never lets facts get in the way of telling a good fish story.

And while it’s sad that salmon fishing is in decline, for every salmon fisherman that’s lost his or her job, hundreds of agricultural workers have been laid off or forced out of the Central Valley in search of work.  Due to water cutbacks, hundreds of thousands of Central Valley families have been struggling to put food of any kind on their tables.

Let’s not forget that, according to the Association of California Water Agencies, only 18 percent of the water that comes from the Delta is exported south for all uses, and that’s only when we can move it.  The vast majority of water that flows into the delta, 76 percent, gets flushed on out to sea. 

The simple truth is California’s agriculture industry does not waste water.  In fact, California agriculture has led the way on wise water use.  According to the California Department of Water Resources, between 1980 and 2000, while salmon fishing was in decline, our statewide agriculture harvest increased by 40 percent for each acre-foot of water used.  Farmers are constantly investing in materials and practices to glean every bit of yield possible from every drop of water.  Only someone who’s never worked on a farm would believe farmers waste water.

More than anyone else, farmers understand the value of water.  And that’s not by accident.  Farmers not only rely on water, we pay for it.  We pay for every drop.  Sure, we get reasonable rates, but it’s those reasonable rates that keep food prices down at the supermarket.  Every gallon of water denied to farmers drives production and jobs out of California.  Would shoppers in Los Angeles be happy with cruising down the produce aisle to buy carrots only to find out they were grown in China instead of here in our own Central Valley?

Some big-city folk who have lost their connection to the land tend to jump into bed with the radical environmentalists. And it’s those same folks who have held sway in Sacramento for too long.  It’s the radical environmentalist crowd that’s killed every proposal to build or expand our state’s capacity to store water for droughts like this.  If we had those dams now there’d be plenty of water for farms AND fish, and there’d be no need for a new water war.  But believe it or not, that same crowd is at work in Sacramento right now, trying to push through a new multi-billion dollar water bond that doesn’t even guarantee we’ll ever see any new water.  Billions of dollars allegedly for water, but not a drop to drink?  I wonder what kind of fish story they’ll be telling to justify that.