Drought talk around Thanksgiving table: Farmers versus urbanites
By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
POSTED: 11/29/14, 3:00 PM PST
Would your Thanksgiving table be ruined if the stuffing or side dishes did not contain almonds?
No, of course not, notwithstanding Martha Stewart’s recipe for chorizo-almond stuffing or your sister-in-law’s infamous green beans amandine.
Then why are our water policymakers treating the almond farmers like they were producing a life-sustaining staple?
In a severe drought, urban users like you and I are asked to cut back on water use, but farmers, who get close to three-quarters of the water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, don’t have to change their ways.
That sums up the main argument from Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a group that opposed the $7.5 billion water bond known as Proposition 1 and believes building our way out of the drought won’t work.
But it is not that simple.
Barrigan-Parrilla wants to see West-side San Joaquin Valley farmers change their business model by growing more tomatoes and cantaloupes instead of water-hogging almonds or rice. In short, she and many others I get letters from whenever I write about water conservation want to see a balance of effort. If ordinary city folk are forced to cut back, what about farmers? And what about developers building new homes all taking more water?
If the drought becomes Thanksgiving Day or weekend conversation, just make sure the carving knives are safely put away. Remember what Mark Twain said: In California, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.
Environmental groups always talk about getting farmers to use less water by growing more appropriate crops. They pick on growers of cotton, rice, vineyards and almonds because they use more water than other crops. But making such a switch may not be practical. Almond trees take years to produce. Should farmers cut them down? Also, reducing crop yields means higher prices at the supermarket produce section. Already, the drought will raise supermarket prices 2.5 to 3.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Plus, there’s the issue of food. We need water to survive but we also need food. In the list of the Top 10 agriculture-producing states in terms of cash receipts, California is No. 1, the USDA reports.
At the root of Barrigan-Parrilla’s argument: Agriculture, with 70 percent of water from an ailing Delta, produces crops that account for 2 percent of California’s Gross Domestic Product. The 30 percent of Delta water given to coastal agencies and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 5,200 square miles of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties — about 19 million people — serves a trillion dollar economy.
“Where does it make more sense to share it, with the trillion dollar economy or the one with the 2-3 percent GDP?” she asked rhetorically.
In this farm vs. city argument, where do we draw the line? Who draws it? If we get rid of almonds, should we get rid of iPhones? The microchips inside them require water to manufacture.
Bill Patzert, one of the foremost weather scientists who works at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, wants to see California appoint a secretary of water who would tell farmers not to drill new wells that can shrink aquifers. “Some of those aquifers in the Central Valley go back to the ice age,” he said.
San Diego, which must import nearly all its water (it has no ground water), went from 600,000 to 3.5 million population in the last 60 years. That many more people and developments means a tougher water appetite to quench, he said. “There is no central planning (for water in the state). There is nobody who can tell the farmers that when you are in a multi-year drought, you can’t grow almonds,” Patzert said.
If rationing starts, we may need someone to make such decisions. But as it stand now, this can’t happen without new laws or new leadership.
Steve Scauzillo covers transportation and the environment for the Los Angeles News Group. He’s the recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing from The Wilderness Society. Follow him on Twitter @stevscaz or email him at [email protected]