Does new irrigation report make case for land fallowing?

California ag is only .5 percent inefficient, according to a just-released study by the Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT) at California State University, Fresno.

I have no reason to doubt the findings of the eighty-page report, which seem to carefully made, at least to a layperson like me.

The findings are based on a thorough review of published research and technical data as well as state of California publications to assess the overall potential for agricultural water-use efficiency to provide new water supplies. The report found that little potential exists for new water unless large swaths of agricultural land are taken out of production, which technically is not water-use efficiency.

“Unless large swaths are taken out of production.” That’s really the issue that the study implicitly directs our attention to. Or mine, anyway.

As a way of freeing up water supply, fallowing is one option. That would of course be contentious, especially so for one of the underwriters of the CIT report, the California Farm Water Coalition. Cheap food, after all, is a persuasive argument.

There are more and less likely regions of the Central Valley that might be taken out of production. Many if not all of them are in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin.

Speaking of which, Patricia McBroom at the California Spigot recently argued for restoring Tulare Lake:

If the lake were recovered - representing about 200,000 acres of farmland - it could hold the liquid equivalent of about three new reservoirs, and could charge the depleted underlying aquifer as well.  It’s a grand idea, supported not only by Zuckerman, but by the 200 organizations that make up the Environmental Water Caucus.

Even the CIT report identifies the unsustainable scale of overdrafting on the aquifer as a major issue, if not one within the scope of their study. It is not their obligation to draw conclusions about that fact. But it should be a major concern for someone, shouldn’t it? McBroom’s piece at least synthesizes into a solution several interests - including groundwater repletion - that bring into greater balance available water supply with demand.

Not that that is likely to happen anytime soon. It seems that the CIT/CFWC argument is that “we are doing nearly everything we can to conserve water and we are still forced to overdraw groundwater because we don’t have enough available supply to meet our needs so that we can supply cheap food with cheap water and cheap labor.”


Clearly, one must conclude from the CIT report one of two things:

1/ Ag land must be taken out of production

2/ Additional water supply must be found to support existing ag demand.

Since current “alternative conveyance” studies are based not on increasing export of water but only ensuring its dependability (see this NRDC piece on the so-called “co-equal goals” principle for a refresher), we know where the hard line of pro-ag reasoning must eventually lead: to the unrestrained export of Delta water south, and a destroyed Delta ecosystem.

Posted by John Bass on 17 Nov 2011 | Comments (2)


The author should be writing that California farmers are 95.5 percent efficient in their use of water as they produce a reliable supply of safe and healthy food for the consumer. He narrows down the recent study by the Center of Irrigation Technology to two options—-fallow farmland or increase the water supply. He then creates  “the hard line of pro-ag reasoning must eventually lead to the unrestrained export of Delta water south, and a destroyed Delta ecosystem.”

This statement exhibits a lack of understanding of the current process that farm water interests are working through to get their water deliveries back to levels that they originally contracted for. Part of this ongoing effort is to prevent further harm to the Delta ecosystem. What is so wrong about securing a water supply that results in billions of dollars worth of ag produce, thousands of jobs and financial support for rural communities? Public water agencies have already spent $140 million toward this effort and they are being asked to commit another $100 million. They have been willing to do this in order to establish a reliable supply of water.

By the way, the water these public water agencies receive does not originate in the Delta, it simply passes through it. If this water is not made available to 25 million Californians and farmland that produces a bountiful food supply, then it will end up in the ocean.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

That I did not describe the current process that farm water interests are working through to get their water doesn’t mean I don’t understand the process, the reasons why they are investing in that process, or regional concerns and stakes.

Getting water deliveries back to originally contracted levels suggests that those contracts were assurances of receiving that water quantity. They were not. The devil is in the details on the reasons why this supply has not been assured.

Indeed, as you write, water only passes through the Delta. For this very reason, I have noted in the past that many regions of California, including San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir water recipients, should be included in the co-equal negotiations.

The simple, and unarguable point I am making in this post is that a 2MAF annual groundwater overdraft is unsustainable. To reduce this overdraft to sustainable levels would require that water to be made up from somewhere else.

That is a large amount of water. One that only addresses current ag uses, not urban growth, etc.

I await the science that demonstrates how such a large quantity could possibly come from the Delta without that place becoming in large measure a habitat mitigation bank.

Or someone to come up with a way to fund buying out, say,500,000 acres of privately owned Delta land. Tulare lake seems small by comparison.

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