Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dried up dreams: "aquatic gold rush" and soil turned to dust

California's unique agriculture is marked in its "character and its contribution to the state and the nation by its unparalleled diversity and bounty," says the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets. A perception exists that California farmers enjoy not only the perfect weather conditions but also the necessary water needed to sustain our cornucopia.

However, prior to Colorado River’s diversion to reach Southern California in 1901, parts of California currently used for agriculture were deserts. Last week, Felicity Barringer’s piece in the New York Times reminded the nation of this land’s continued reliance on outsourced liquid gold. These manmade agrarian oases could become deserts once more as its’ farmers get bribed to part with their water to provide for urban communities.

The issue of water shortage is not unique to California. This summer, Oklahoma experienced one of the driest summers in 80 years. According to Christina Miralla's post in the Environmental Protection Blog earlier this month:
The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) stated that global warming has caused more than 1,100 counties in the lower 48 states [to be] at higher risk of water shortages by mid-century and more than 400 [to be] at extremely high risk. The study pointed out [that] 14 states – Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas –face an extreme or high risk to water sustainability and will likely see limitations on water availability as demand exceeds supply by 2050.
Barringer's article highlights the story of third-generation farmer Al Kalin of Brawley, California, whose family has worked its 2,000 acres of carrots, sugar beets, wheat and alfalfa for nearly a century. One solution to fix the state's continued water shortage problem is to incentivize farmers by paying them by acre to stop nourishing their crops with water. For example, Kalin could earn more than $500 an acre, which is more than the market value of alfalfa. Water "saved" is then sent on to "thirsty cities and suburbs"to the west (such as Los Angeles and San Diego).

Yet despite Barringer's brief mention of “thirsty cities and suburbs,” the article begs for a true urban/rural analysis. The article mentions how farmers were accused of using water inefficiently, yet fails to mention that urban communities are equally guilty of wasting water. Further, it gives no indication as to why it is better to divert the water to the cities, or how that water is used, how it is distributed. The act of giving bought water to cities pits urban and agri-rural communities against each other, where one (in this case urban) is viewed as the more worthy recipient of an increasingly limited resource.

Further, this urban solution fails to understand farmers’ unease at letting their land go fallow and the ripple effect agriculture has on the local economy. Farms provide jobs. While approximately only 450 farmers exist in the Imperial Valley, an estimated 174,000 jobs are tied to agriculture. Rural population decline is a real threat and likely outcome as too much land is left idle and the communities that rely on farms begin to wither. As Kalin astutely states, “There was nothing here before the water was here. There will be nothing here after it’s gone.” Beyond the fear that their communities will dry up, farmers have an attachment to their land and struggle with the unsettling feeling of allowing that land to waste away. It just doesn’t feel right in their gut to allow their family land to cease to matter and to produce as it has for generations.

In the end, those who choose to take the money will prosper from the “aquatic gold rush” in the short-run, but they take a gamble that their decision won't pose long-term negative effects on their community and their own livelihoods. Imperial County supervisor Gary Wyatt urges against taking this risk; “[i]f we ship any more water out, we’ve compromised our future.”


JWHS said...

The problem of unemployed farmworkers is huge here! Also, the larger implications for their economies is interesting. Will water shares become a permanent part of the economic infrastructure? Will there be open-bidding, will there be further government regulation?

The tragedy of the commons problem is also prevalent, if everyone sells their water who grows the food?

ScottA. said...

I know that I am a bit biased when it comes to water since I come from the very wet North Coast. But it's always bothered me that there are water intensive crops grown in arid areas and we tend to build up our cities in those same places.

Perhaps we need to start getting really hard on water users, both rural and urban. Farmers should not be given incentives to leave lands fallow, but incentives to produce less water intensive crops.

And city dwellers should be paying heavy fees for water usage at non-optimal times. I become quite angry when I see people in the valley or in the Los Angeles basin watering their lawns at two in the afternoon during a heat wave.

There is just not enough water to go around for environmental, agricultural, and urban needs at the current levels. We need to get real and need to start turning the spigot off.

Namora said...

It is true, but may be changing because of climate change, that water shortage in California is not due to an overall shortage, but maldistribution. While most of the water falls in the north,as Scott pointed out, most of California's population lives in the south. I think it interesting that when people complain about having to conserve water in Northern California, they are quick to blame the state water projects for delivering water to the Los Angeles area. But what about all the federal projects that deliver water to areas for agriculture? Perhaps some of these areas shouldn't be farming with water reliant crops if there isn't water there in the first place!