As General Manager of the largest irrigation district in the Sacramento Valley, my job involves coordinating with area growers and other water agencies in our region to make sure our most valuable resource is efficiently used. Living in the nation’s most populous and top agricultural state requires additional responsibilities of informing those outside of our area about the widespread benefits that come from a stable water supply in the North State.
Farmers by nature and necessity have to adopt the latest technology to stay in business. Their water use is no different. Rice farmers, for example, are using 20 percent less water than they did 30 years ago and are producing 30 percent more rice.
Facts like these sometimes get lost as people not fully versed on irrigation practices in our area question our water use.
One misunderstanding is how water flows through our Sacramento Valley, which is a complicated and intricate system of surface water, groundwater, agricultural lands that grow food and support terrestrial ecosystems, and our ecosystems within creeks, rivers and streams. In fact, our system is like no other in any other part of the state and to try and implement conservation and efficiency practices here, while important, must always be viewed of how those actions could in fact cause opposite and negative impacts.
Recently, there has been discussion by some that if we simply install new water meters and move to volumetric pricing in our region water will be immediately saved and available for other uses in the state. This conclusion must be coupled with the assumption that water is being wasted and not available for other uses. However, this is false. A recent report entitled, “Efficient Water Management for Regional Sustainability in the Sacramento Valley” provides regional and technical facts of how water is actually used in the valley.
Some blindly believe that if surface water diversions are reduced, water would be saved. In fact what would need to happen would be that other diversions would need to be increased to offset the loss of supplies previously received from upslope return flows. In short, water would follow different flow paths through the rice growing region but there would be no water saved.
Once rice farmers exhaust cost-effective means of reducing surface water applications, and as prices increase still further, they would be forced to consider switching to lower water use and lower value crops or potentially land would begin to be permanently fallowed, thus changing the landscape of this valley. This is the point where some want to reach, where pricing begins to truly save water. Along with the lost production of affordable, responsibly grown rice now sold into local and global markets would be the loss of the winter habitat provided by rice fields, which is critically important to sustaining migrating waterfowl. Alternatively, rice farmers could drill wells and pump groundwater in lieu of using their renewable but too expensive surface water supplies. However, this could impact our groundwater system which is in a state of balance.
I prefer a Sacramento Valley that looks more like it does now, with agricultural and ecologic functions intimately intertwined and sustained. Sure, much remains to be done (by many, not just farmers) to improve water quality and increase anadromous fish populations, but I believe the system can be made to work over the long haul.
The Sacramento Valley is a unique place to live, work and recreate. It’s where farmers coexist with millions of birds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway. I wish those that would like to forever alter this landscape would take the time to visit and learn more about why it’s worth preserving.