Let’s Learn from Australia Before It’s Too Late


The California State Water Resources Control board, elected officials and others frequently tout Australia as a model for managing limited water resources. Specifically, Australia’s long history of dealing with drought is seen as a way to help California avoid making the same mistakes – Australia has already been where California is heading.

Hillston New South Wales
Hillston, NSW, where numerous businesses have closed because of declining commerce due to the purchase of farm water by environmental water rights holders.

On August 16, in a letter to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the agency charged with implementation of Australia’s Basin Plan, five prominent Australian farm organizations emphatically argued for a multi-pronged approach to treating environmental issues. The letter cited the economic devastation that results from simply dedicating more and more water exclusively to environmental purposes and expecting that to solve the problem. After listing multiple tactics that can and should be employed, the letter went on to say:

“We submit that the focus on ‘adding more water’ as the singular management tool, under the Basin Plan, must cease. Instead, a dedicated effort must focus on a range of measures that provide an equal balance to food and fibre production, the social and economic outcomes for communities and the environment.”

The California Farm Water Coalition has long argued that continuing to flush more water out to sea, even though there is no evidence this approach has provided measurable environmental benefits, is the very definition of insanity. This year alone, California has flushed over 1 million acre-feet of water out to sea, enough to provide 6 million domestic users with water for a year or grow almost 17 billion salads.

The Lachlan River near flood stage in Hillston, NSW. Muddy water is the result of bottom-feeding invasive carp stirring up the river bottom.

Farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, as well as urban water users should be furious at this reliance on outdated, failed practices that help no one and hurt millions.

Let’s learn from Australia before it’s too late and shift our focus to multi-pronged, common sense and science-based solutions as identified in this Public Policy Institute of California report.


Central Valley Project Users Can’t Get a Break

Dead Citrus Trees

WATER SUPPLIES ARE better than normal in Northern California, so why is it that Central Valley Project (CVP) water users can’t get a break? The water users in question are the farms and ranches in the San Joaquin Valley that rely on the federal Central Valley Project water conveyance system. They are set to receive a meager 5 percent of their water supply this year.

It’s the middle of May and rainfall in the northern Sierra is currently 111 percent of normal. Lake Shasta is 93 percent full and 108 percent of its year-to-date average. By all accounts there is sufficient water in the system operated by the federal government to meet the needs that the CVP was designed to serve – irrigation and municipal water supplies. But the priority for the project in the last two decades has shifted from providing water for people to being geared toward environmental demands. This almost complete reallocation of California’s federal water supply has reached a point where the people paying for the project are no longer able to rely on it to serve their needs.

The ripple effect reaches an area in excess of 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) – more than one-third of the irrigated cropland in California. In contrast, California’s other large water supplier, the State Water Project, is delivering a 60 percent allocation to its customers. Many other areas of the state are on track to receive 75– 100 percent of their normal water supply.

Water districts find themselves in the same position as Oliver Twist asking for an additional spoonful of gruel – and it’s looking less likely that they will get any.

The newly styled CVP management impacts go far beyond the farms receiving the pittance of water being delivered to the San Joaquin Valley. The kicker is that without farmers paying for irrigation water the repayment of the construction costs of the CVP falls behind, and operation and maintenance (O&M) costs escalate for other users within the CVP. Federal water users in Northern California have seen O&M prices more than double because they end up carrying a greater share of those costs when water supplies are shorted elsewhere in the state.

What is occurring is a slow-motion train wreck. Much of the blame can be placed on federal fishery managers overseeing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta with a myopic view of what constitutes effective protection for Chinook salmon and delta smelt. Water supplies have been cut over the last 24 years in favor of fishery management but the fish aren’t doing any better. In fact they’re worse off than they were before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in after Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act in 1992.

According to Dr. Sean Hayes of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the awareness of other stressors is now more prevalent, which includes invasive species, predators, poor ocean conditions and the loss of salmon and smelt-rearing habitat. Yet fishery managers continue to limit farm water deliveries on the Sacramento River and through the Delta as their only tool to try to protect the fish.

Dead Citrus Trees
Citrus Trees Lost Due to Drought and Water Supply

A mild shift in how we manage the problems affecting the Delta can pay big dividends in the future. Fishery managers need to pay attention to emerging science. Allowing unlimited fishing for predators in “hot spots” where they are known to congregate can help salmon in the short term. Investing in tidal marsh habitat will provide more natural areas for young salmon and delta smelt to grow, giving them a fighting chance for survival and reproduction. And installing a barrier at the head of Old River will help maintain a more natural flow through the Delta, keeping fish on track during their migration.

Taxpayers have shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars in this failed effort, both in direct costs supporting the Endangered Species Act and in aid to families displaced when farm jobs and the water that supports them are taken away. It’s time for a comprehensive look at how we manage our water resources. The taxpaying public, water users, local communities and our environment deserve better.

Brentwood Kids Care Club learn about water conservation

Photograph of Brentwood Kids Care Club
The Brentwood Kids Care Club

Brentwood Kids Care Club is a group of elementary school boys and girls, started by their moms, with the idea to teach their children the variety of ways everyone can contribute to making the world a better place. As the kids schedules start to fill with the many activities related to sports, dance, and school an effort was undertaken to make a place in their lives for philanthropy activities. The goal was to make it fun, educate about the many areas we can help in our community, and instill in our kids compassion for others. The Brentwood Kids Care Club is one of many clubs from the larger organization http://kidscare.org/.

Children gathering walnuts
Members of the Brentwood Kids Care Club gather walnuts

Their “Walnuts to Water” activity focused on water conservation. A local farmer let the club collect the extra walnuts left over after harvest. They learned how important water is to our farms and how they can help to conserve water every day. Club members sold bags of walnuts through local businesses and to family members and friends. Their effort raised $323, which club members wanted to be used for water conservation education.

The club decided to donate their earnings to the California Farm Water Coalition to be used to distribute information on how farmers can conserve water.

Here are some tips that many farmers find are helpful ways to grow food and fiber using water as efficiently as possible:

Choose the right irrigation system
Choosing the irrigation system that best matches your crop, soil type and the source of water is very important. Some crops, such as orchards and vineyards, grow very well using high-efficiency drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation systems. Others need sprinklers, especially young vegetables and melon crops, to help them germinate and sprout. And field crops, including alfalfa and rice, do better with gravity-type irrigation, which can be very efficient when soils are right and fields are level.


Level your fields
When the field used to grow a crop is very level, water flows across it or penetrates into the ground very evenly. Having a level field helps farmers make sure their water supplies are spread evenly Leveling Fieldsand aren’t wasted with too much water in one place and not enough water in another. Farmers can use special equipment that uses lasers to guide tractors and scrapers to make sure their fields are nice and flat before they plant and begin irrigating their crops.

Let satellites guide your tractor
Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites can be used by tractors for guidance as they travel across the field planting seeds or turning over the soil to control weeds. A GPS system can help drive a tractor all by itself and maintain a straight row across the field much more accurately than a person can!

Check your irrigation pump
A pump that is running inefficiently can waste both water and energy. Agricultural universities and power utilities sponsor pump testing programs to check to make sure your irrigation pump is running as efficiently as possible. Special meters from utility companies also keep track of when you’re using your pump and charge lower energy rates if it is used in off-peak hours, such as after 6 pm and on weekends.

Look for leaks
It takes water to grow food so it’s important to make sure plants are getting all of the water they need to grow. Irrigation pipelines and canals can leak over time, which wastes water and money.

Poll affirms Americans’ support for farm water

Poll affirms Americans’ support for farm water

Americans have confirmed their support for farmers’ use of water to produce food and fiber during times of scarcity in a recent poll by AP-GfK.

The drought now affecting California and other Western states has captured the public’s attention, with the majority of those polled (56 percent) noting that they are following news about the drought somewhat, or extremely/very closely. With the eyes of the nation on California’s problems, the public recognizes that our states’ farms are being threatened-with 74 percent believing that water for agriculture should be a priority, more than any other water use.

This renewed focus provides a unique opportunity to share the care and effort taken by farmers in growing our farm products. California’s farmers are committed to producing food and fiber in ecologically-sensitive ways, investing heavily in improvements in water use efficiency systems like soil moisture sensors, irrigation scheduling and automation, and precision drip irrigation.FarmerwithTablet

Farmers recognize that water is precious, and recycle and reuse water whenever possible. For decades farmers in California have captured unused water from one field for reuse on nearby fields. As technologies improve, other emerging opportunities for water recycling also show promise. Farmers are already using purified urban runoff and wastewater that has been treated to remove impurities to supplement fresh water, and expanding use of solar stills to desalinate water and remove other troublesome minerals is already in the works.

Recent criticism of consumers’ food choices has argued that growing food in California using these and other sophisticated agronomic practices demands vast sums of water to be grown in California, but the truth is, for many crops, California is exactly the right place.

citrusbinsCalifornia is unique in our ability to grow more than 400 different types of food and other farm products. This variety comes courtesy of California’s sheer size: Roughly 800 miles north to south, California is home to a diverse range of growing conditions. Making sweeping generalizations about California’s suitability for agriculture ignores just how diverse the state really is.

The years of water supply instability prior to the drought challenged farmers’ ability to produce our food Overcoming the challenges of nature require us to identify solutions that benefit us all. Right now, however, we are struggling against bureaucracies and regulations that are contrary to the will of the people.

California groundwater pumping impacts preventable

CBS News recently focused on the impacts of groundwater pumping in California, but the causes were avoidable. Improving the reliability of surface water to avoid extracting groundwater from aquifers was a primary goal of California’s water projects. The reality is, California groundwater overdraft impacts were preventable.

We applaud 60 Minutes for discussing the important issue of groundwater depletion. However, the report missed a very important factor relative to California – the amount of water taken from food production to prop up failing environmental policies. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act over a million acre-feet of water per year that was once used to grow food now flows to the Pacific Ocean with no measurable environmental benefit. For some it has been a 20-year drought brought on by misguided environmental regulations. Failed government policies are having the effect of making farmers MORE dependent on groundwater rather than less. It’s not surprising that they’re pumping groundwater to stay in business. The same thing happened a century ago and it was the federal and State water projects that put a halt to groundwater overdraft by providing plentiful surface water supplies. Many farmers today no longer have the reliable water supplies that were once delivered by these projects. That will ultimately affect consumers with fewer choices and higher prices at the grocery store.

There might be a tradeoff if vulnerable fish species were recovering but they’re not. That’s because the real causes of fish death aren’t being addressed, such as overfishing, invasive species and undertreated wastewater discharges into California’s largest estuary, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Instead federal environmental water managers are treating the problem by dumping more and more water into a system that isn’t responding because it’s the wrong solution. Agricultural and urban water suppliers are required to complete efficient water management plans to assure that water is being used as efficiently as possible. It’s time that environmental water managers do the same.