Monday, March 21, 2011

Water Politics- The Cost of Food In America and the California Water Supply

California Water Plan Update 2013's Public Advisory Committee meets on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. This meeting is open to the public. The future of California will be decided by the water necessary to maintain and grow the agricultural sector. The recent rains and favorable snowpack have alleviated the recent water crisis, but not the long term projections.

California water problems fundamentally result from having a growning economy and growing urban population in an arid climate. There is simply not enough water to go around. Almost all of the water in California comes from precipitation in the northern portion of the state and inflows from the Colorado and Klamath Rivers.

The solution to the problem is not increasing reservoirs. While water storage does allow flexibility, making it possible to carry water over to the dry season and to smooth out year-to-year variations in precipitation, it does not create water. Large reservoirs already exist on most major streams in California, limiting the potential to increase absolute water deliveries than in the past. There are no longer large unregulated amounts of water available to fill new reservoirs.

The current through-Delta system is unsustainable, but the solution suggested for a peripheral canal is limited in what it can accomplish. This canal alone will not fix the Delta nor create additional water supply. Nor is it likely (according to the US EPA) to improve native fish populations enough to allow immediate increases in exports above currently restricted levels. The idea of large construction projects is pushed by local interests that will profit from state subsidies. However, California no longer has the wealth to waste enriching a few and not solving its long term problems.

According to U.S. Department of Commerce, California’s GDP (gross domestic product) was slightly more than $1.8 trillion in 2007. GDP is the value of all goods and services produced in California. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, the total value of the agricultural output from the state’s farms and ranches was $36.6 billion in 2007, up from $31.8 billion the year before. This means that crop, meat and dairy sales account for about 2% of the state economy. However, when you count all the secondary economic impacts: wine making and sales, chesses making, olive oil production, juice making, food processing and packing this number grows to 7.9% of the California economy.

In terms of national agricultural output, $36.6 billion in revenue represents 12.8% of the U.S. total. The state accounted for 17.6 % of crops, and 7 % of the U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products. California produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Several of these crops are currently produced only in California.

The number of farms operating in California has been falling as farms consolidate and grow larger. There 75,000 farms and ranches in California. As a comparison there are approximately 1.9 million farms and ranches in the United States. However, California farms and ranches produced an average of $488,000 in revenue each year, compared to the average U.S. farm sales of $137,000. Yet, the average farm size in California was 349 acres, compared with the U.S. average of 449 acres.

According to Pacific Research Institute, agricultural crop volume production per unit of applied water (tons/acre-foot) increased by 38 % from 1980 to 2000. This increase in crop volume occurred during a period of falling food prices so that inflation-adjusted gross crop revenue per unit of applied water (dollars/acre-foot) increased by 11 percent by 2000 compared to 1980.

California has a complex, highly interconnected, and decentralized water system. Agriculture’s share of non-environmental water use was reported to be 77 % in 2005, down from an reported 90 % in 1960. As farmers have shifted to higher value horticultural and orchard crops, they have adopted more efficient irrigation technologies. There is still some progress that can be made in net water use by expanding implementation of drip irrigation and other technologies, but there are limitations, too.

The Central Valley Project (CVP), supplies water to thousands of Central Valley farms. The CVP water is subsidized and estimated yearly subsidy to farmers is roughly $60 million. This water subsidy was intended to subsidize the price of produce in the United States. Sixty million is a tiny fraction of the $36.6 billion that is the base cost of produce. The value of agricultural land in California is in part determined by eligibility for water subsidy and many of today’s farmers paid for this subsidy when they bought the land from the grantees. Maintaining this subsidy and the etrawealth it produces is what the farmers in the Central Valley are fighting for.

The Pacific Institute recommends the elimination of 1.3 million acres of drainage-impaired lands in the San Joaquin Valley from irrigation and agricultural use. This land represents less than 5% of the agricultural land in California, but would save 3.9 million acre-feet of water per year, while also reducing polluted surface water runoff and impacts to groundwater. This water savings represents 9% of the water used in California and is equal to two thirds of the total water used for urban residential use. This combined with limited conservation measures could solve the California water issues for decades.

However taking this proactive and ultimately necessary step is not likely to happen. The cost in terms of impacts on agricultural workers, agricultural communities, the value of the land and the wealth of the farmers will be fought tooth and nail by every political action group with an interest in the outcome. The urban residents of California elect just under two thirds of the state legislature. We can’t both use the water to subsidize the food and allow for growth in California. We need to choose between half of all U.S. grown fruits, nuts and vegetables and people. The cost of food in America is on a collision course with water supply in California.

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