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Hot, Dry, Thriving? A Farm Plan for California

Article from The New York Times

By Felicity Barringer

A report on  the future of California agriculture, released by the  Pacific Institute on Wednesday, offers the following vision: “It is now the year 2050 and California agriculture is thriving, leading the world in sustainable production, the efficient use of water … and the protection of ecological services.”

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his great poem “Kubla Khan,” he added five small words to the title: “A Vision in a Dream.” Three researchers from the Pacific Institute — Heather Cooley, Juliet Christian-Smith and Peter H. Gleick – might have appended the same words to “Sustaining California Agriculture in An Uncertain Future.”

It doesn’t address how plausible it is that California farmers will change their spots and accept the idea of centralized controls and limits on their use of water, even with the threat of more frequent and severe droughts brought on by climate change. That said, the report does give a fine-grained set of prescriptions for how the state, the federal government and California’s farmers could sustain production –- even in dry periods like the present — by using water more efficiently. That in turn could be achieved by adjusting the way they apply water to the fields, the kind of crops they grow and the way that state and federal water managers deliver the water.

Drip irrigation, or micro-irrigation, is the most efficient way to get the maximum crop yield from a unit of water, the report says; flood irrigation — still the most common form -– is the least efficient; sprinkler systems are somewhere in between.

For instance, the researchers suggest devoting less land to rice, cotton, alfalfa and other field crops, which now get 80 percent of their water from flooding. They recommend giving more to vegetables, vineyards and orchards, crops for which micro-irrigation is more common.

To promote such a shift, the researchers suggest that the capital cost of sprinkler or drip irrigation systems be defrayed by federal subsidies and property tax breaks from state and county governments. They also suggest creating legal mechanisms to let natural competitors for water allocations -– municipal water districts, say, or environmental organizations –- invest in the efficient irrigation systems in return for some of the water saved.

The state’s complex network of canals and reservoirs could be retooled to provide water to farmers when they need it, instead of on a set schedule that may have little relation to weather patterns or crop development. Finally, they argue that California needs to monitor and control groundwater withdrawals (a California Assembly bill to do this was sent into legislative limbo this spring) and to crack down on profligate water users whose excesses are in violation of the legal requirement that water use be “beneficial.”

If the rose-colored agricultural utopia laid out in the report’s preface doesn’t get the reader’s attention, the authors also include a dystopia: the recent drought-induced collapse of agriculture in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, whose crops, irrigation and reservoir systems and general management have much in common with that of California’s agricultural heartland.


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