The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

The Problem with the Price of Water

The Problem with the Price of Water

The Food Journal

November 11, 2013

Where DO the farmers in California get their water?*

On the east side of the San Joaquin Valley (Central Valley Project) citrus, nuts and stone fruit are mostly produced. The San Joaquin River Restoration Program allocated approximately 200,000 acre feet** away from the east side’s supply for environmental purposes (“to restore and maintain fish populations in 'good condition' in the main stem of the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River, including naturally reproducing and self-sustaining populations of salmon and other fish”). Regardless of the merit of these environmental acts, the east side (the Friant Division) suffering from drought is in dire need for water. 

In Salinas Valley, water issues are looming due to saltwater intrusion. The management of existing groundwater resources is costly. The Paso Robles area is stressed because there are many wineries drawing water from the ground and also the urban uses of water. 

In the desert, to reduce the over-dependence on the Colorado River, the Imperial Irrigation District entered a Quantitative Settlement Agreement delivering 300,000 acre feet a year of water to San Diego. In exchange for payment of the water, farmers fallowed acres of their land. The question is how much fallowing can the region handle and still produce a majority of our nation’s winter vegetables?

The west side of the valley grows a lot of almonds and leafy green veggies. Their irrigation district can receive water from water transfer arrangements. Those transfers will cost a farmer a premium. Also, for these farmers, a primary source of "replacement" water in times of regulatory drought (the Endangered Species Act-driven cuts to their surface water supply) is increased pumping of groundwater. There are environmental implications with increased pumping. (see environmental impact below.)

The SJ River Exchange Contractors hold some of the oldest water rights in the state where they receive “substitute” water from the Sacramento River via the Delta-Mendota canal and other facilities of the US. This is due to the building of the dams, specifically the Friant Dam. 

*Assistance by Western Growers

** Acre foot is the amount of water covering 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot or 326,000 gallons

Issues for Consumers to Understand:

Barry Bedwell, President of the California Grape and Fruit Tree Fruit League, points out that food safety and national security issues are two major concerns behind the issue of the rising price of water. “It’s not just about local California pride,” says Bedwell. “As an example, when you look at table grape numbers, California produced over 100 million boxes in 2012, and it is a wonderful success story. However, keep in mind that the #1 producer in the world at 991 million boxes is China. China has filed for access to the US market. Access will take a number of years because of pests and diseases concerns that need to be addressed, but it’s in motion. The US consumer has to understand if we don’t grow table grapes in CA, we won’t get them from say Mexico or Chile…we will get them from China. They have to ask themselves how they feel about that?” Interview with Barry Bedwell, President, California Grape and Tree Fruit League 

Urban use can be the biggest challenge for water scarcity and cost for farmers. Families Protecting The Valley is one of the organizations getting a different message out, stating on their website, “California’s water policy is about more than farmers. It’s about jobs, schools, families and our environment.“ The California Farm Water Coalition’s slogan is “Food grows where water flows.” Farmers have long term water supply reliability concerns. In ten to 15 years, will they be able to sustain their operation with unknown but certainly higher water costs? Farmers are truly trying to be sustainable and are very sensitive to water use. 

Changing Farmers, Changing Retailers:

Bedwell explains, “Consumers should also realize that what is happening in the grocery retail sector is also what is happening with farms. Over the last three or four decades, there has been the consolidation of grocery stores and retail outlets. In turn, family farms had to get bigger to be more efficient to meet retailer requirements. Forty years ago there were 1200 estimated table grape growers and 20 million boxes of California grapes a year. Now there are 100 million boxes of grapes, but only 471 growers.” The California Grape and Tree Fruit League’s 2013 Top Ten Issues lists water supply issues as #4 after labor costs and laws and immigration reform.

Where consumers may desire California grown, big buyers have their eye on a long term reliable chain of product at a certain cost. “A large buyer of a certain fresh produce commodity is going to focus on long term planning. They may look globally and at other parts of the US as a possible source for that commodity. California brand has some value in the marketplace, California Grown, but at the end of the day a customer wants their product,” says Dave Puglia of Western Growers.

Running Westlands Water District:

The Westlands Water District covers 600,000 acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley; the entire western half of Fresno and a portion of Kings county. It is the largest irrigation district in the country in terms of crop production with 60 different kinds of crops. Westlands, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Kern County Water Agency and the Santa Clara Valley Water District are all are partners in pursuing the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and at risk, which binds them significantly.

Jason Peltier, Chief Deputy General Manager of Westlands Water District, spoke frankly with The Food Journal about the water shortage due to environmental restrictions for farmers, and coping mechanisms. “Due to environmental restrictions (the Endangered Species Act) placed on the Central Valley Project, we have weathered water supply cutbacks of 40 then 60 then 90% over the last twenty years. While of course we want a healthy ecosystem, the two decades of project restrictions seem to have done no good for the fisheries. Our ongoing shortages and the failures of the regulatory regime have led us to pursue the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The BDCP has two purposes; to increase water supplies and reliability, and restore ecosystem values in the Delta.” Interview with Jason Peltier, Chief Deputy General Manager of Westlands Water District 

“Farmers are incredibly agile and do a fantastic job of substituting the food producing machine,” says Peltier. “We are the #1 agricultural state in the country with 45 billion dollars of crop value at the farm gate. While we are the largest food producing state, we are also one of the most highly urbanized states in the nation, and we haven’t reconciled those two realities.”

The Impact on the Environment:

Where water cost increase manifests – that is whenever regulatory restrictions cut back the water supply for farmers - they often turn up irrigation pumps. They pump more from aquifers and doing so can create a situation called overdraft, which can have serious consequences for the basin. 

Subsidence (or sinking) can happen when too much water is drawn out of the ground. There can be the collapse of aquifers and caverns under the ground.  The land above can also come down. There has been subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley. If subsidence continues, one impact may be the disruption of the California Aqueduct itself. If it is on a slight grade, the water is not going to flow.

Voters and Water:

Water supply insecurity translates to higher costs for consumers. The question is, how much higher costs? The decisions involving the supply of water to farmers will be made in part by the voting consumers in urban locations such of LA, San Diego and San Francisco. How much do these voters know about the water complexities and costs to the farmers in Fresno County alone? It is decisions voters make in this area that will increase or decrease access to domestic and local food.  

The 2014 Water Bond was brought forth by the Association of California Water Agencies to address the state's poorly interconnected patchwork of large and small systems and recently, The California Natural Resources Agency, the California EPA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture released a draft of The California Water Action Plan addressing solutions for the reliability of water.

There is and will continue to be competition for water use. Food and fiber cannot be grown without water and decisions on allocation and price will impact supplies.