Where Is California Leadership on Ag Water Conservation?

Groundwater used to flood rice fields in Yuba County, CA

Dale Kolke, DWR

Whether it’s a wet or dry year, California uses more water than is naturally available. And as climate change brings longer, more frequent droughts, rising sea levels, and floods (or even leads to near failures of our outdated water infrastructure like we recently saw at Oroville Dam), it’s critical that we prepare for the water challenges looming ahead. Since farms use 80% of our water, it’s absolutely essential that we figure out how to make real and lasting changes that will save water.

The state’s latest water conservation plan is a necessary next step to move the state toward a more sustainable water future, but it has at least one glaring flaw—it fails to include real changes that would conserve more water in agriculture, California’s largest water user. This is like turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth but continuing to water the lawn around your uncovered junior Olympic-sized swimming pool every single day. It simply makes no sense.

While Gov. Brown has demonstrated strong leadership when it comes to reducing the water used in our homes and businesses, there’s more work to do to help California agriculture become more efficient. The farms that grow the fruit, vegetables, and other food that feed our families use four times the water that our cities use, so we cannot expect to make significant progress toward a sustainable water future without addressing California’s largest water user.

Despite the drought’s impact on water supplies, farm income has surprisingly grown over the past several years. That’s because farmers have largely responded to dwindling rivers and streams by increasing groundwater pumping to dangerously unsustainable levels, which has led to a literal race to the bottom as wells are dug deeper and deeper in search of the last remaining drops of water. Excessive groundwater pumping has also caused ground levels in areas of the San Joaquin Valley to sink by one to two feet in just the last two years and left rural communities like East Porterville without access to safe drinking water.

Although the rain and snow we’ve seen this winter has been promising, a single above-average year cannot reverse the massive declines in groundwater we’ve experienced. (In other words, there are lots of ways to look at the drought, but when you look at groundwater, it’s clear that the drought’s impact is NOT over.) 

While we fully support the plan's proposal to extend water planning requirements to more agricultural water suppliers, it keeps intact nearly all of the draft’s flawed ideas for improving agricultural water efficiency, including a misguided fixation on getting agricultural water districts (which supply irrigation water to farms) to complete complicated water budgets. But even more disappointing, the plan omits specific water-saving practices for suppliers to adopt.

We have repeatedly asked state agencies and the Governor’s Office to consider our recommendations for saving more water from agriculture:

  • Asking water districts to report data electronically in the same format is a critically important change that can only further our understanding of how agriculture uses water.
  • Modernizing water delivery infrastructure systems to allow for flexible delivery would reduce water waste by allowing farmers to precisely time irrigation to meet crop needs. Updated delivery systems also allow farmers to use more efficient irrigation methods, such as drip and regulated deficit irrigation. Together, these improvements could help save 5.6 million to 6.6 million acre-feet of water each year.
  • Asking water districts to consider how they can incentivize the adoption of on-farm practices that improve soil health can provide water-saving benefits for farmers and suppliers alike. Practices that improve soil health, such as conservation tillage, compost application, and cover cropping, can reduce the need for irrigation by increasing the water infiltration and storage capabilities of soil.
  • Holding water districts accountable for complying with existing laws. Although water management plans have been required for several years, only half of the districts turn these plans in. Similarly, many have failed to implement basic water conservation practices, such as measuring water deliveries and charging customers based on water usage, even though they’re required by law. While the plan proposes a compliance schedule, it gives districts far too much time to comply. Under the proposed schedule, districts wouldn't even be notified that they have missed the deadline until three months after the due date. And they would have another four months to either submit a plan or negotiate a timeline for completing a plan before being referred for enforcement action.          

Throughout the plan development process, state agencies have expressed confidence that implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) will do more to improve efficiency in agriculture than revising the water management planning process. If effectively implemented, SGMA will help to address unsustainable water use, but full implementation of groundwater sustainability plans will not occur for decades, and sustainability plans are not required of all groundwater basins. By kicking the can down the road, state agencies have failed to heed the governor’s call to find ways to conserve more water now.  

Pushing California agriculture to become more efficient not only saves water, but it also can help farmers improve profits by encouraging them to find ways to maximize yields while reducing inputs (and costs) — in other words, to grow more crop per drop.

Moving California to a more sustainable water future will require all water users — homes, businesses, and farms alike — to do their part. We cannot continue to punt difficult decisions about how we use and manage water decades down the road. Gov. Brown, our children, grandchildren, and future generations of Californians are counting on you. Will you help lead the way?        

About the Authors

Ben Chou

Policy Analyst, Water program

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