Opinion: Farmers use less water than people think

Some people believe farmers use too much water. However, the amount of water actually used to grow our food is far less than many people believe.

I am a second-generation family farmer. We produce rice and walnuts in the Sacramento Valley. Like most family farmers, we don’t take water for granted. We often use the same water over and over again as it moves from farm to farm. We also pay for our water.

Farm families use the latest technology and best available science to grow high quality and affordable food with the least amount of water. While there is always room for some improvement, it must be viewed as incremental. As Dr. Charles Burt, Chairman of the Irrigation Training and Research Center at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, said recently “We can’t squeeze more water out of California’s already highly efficient agricultural areas.”

Whenever I hear the word “farmer” and “water” mentioned together, it worries me because it is usually critical of farmers. People believe it when they are told repeatedly that farmers use too much water and are contributing to California’s water crisis. I feel a deep sense of disappointment because the public doesn’t understand the whole story nor do they know all the facts.

It is especially troubling to know that one of the most talked about ways to meet California’s water needs is to drain water from the Sacramento Valley to deal with shortages elsewhere in the state.

The Sacramento Valley is one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. Farmers rely on irrigation to grow an abundance of grapes, tomatoes, peaches, pears, prunes, olives, almonds, walnuts, hay, nursery products, cattle, and to produce dairy products. The Sacramento Valley also produces 95 percent of California’s rice crop, and 20 percent of the nation’s rice crop.

Farmers take pride in producing our food, but we can’t do it without water. When driving my tractor or truck I think about how many people we fed because of the 1.5 million 100-pound bags of rice my family’s small farm produced over the years. Many people take their food for granted while much of the world goes to bed hungry. Perhaps it’s because so few people live close to the land like farmers.

A farm is just many individual plants growing, maturing, and producing food that we all need. A plant is like a child. You can’t deny an adequate amount of food and water to a child or a plant and expect it to grow and become strong and healthy. Each plant requires a certain amount of water and farmers are very good at making sure they get just what they need, nothing more and nothing less.

So, how much water do farmers use to grow crops in the Sacramento Valley? The California Department of Water Resources published the most recent facts that answer this question in their 2005 update of the California Water Plan. They selected a wet year, a dry year, and a normal year for their report to cover a wide range of weather conditions.
Based on the department’s data, the amount of water consumed on farms to grow crops in the Sacramento Valley is small by comparison to the potential supply for the years selected by the state. Farms consumed an average of only about 10 percent of the potential water supply.

To put this into perspective, the average annual discharge of water from the Delta to the ocean, water that is no longer available for use, is more than four times the average amount of water consumed by the growth of crops in the Sacramento Valley for the same years.

In addition, water consumed by crops in the Sacramento Valley averages only 26 percent of the total amount of water dedicated for urban, agricultural, and environmental uses for the same years.

It is time to stop blaming farmers for California’s water crisis. Shifting water around the state by draining it from one part and pouring into another will not resolve the crisis. We need a solution to our water problem that doesn’t sacrifice family farms, and all the food, jobs, and environmental benefits they provide.

Misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the facts about water use should not drive California water policy.

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