Written by David Castellon
The recent five years of severe drought across California has fueled debate on whether agriculture uses too much water.
As Michael A. Shires sees it, that debate could eventually spiral into local and state governments taking actions that put agriculture at a lower priority, and as a result, production could be reduced significantly.
And while agriculture comprises only about 2 percent of California’s gross domestic product, he said the loss of agriculture could have devastating effects on the state, from job losses — particularly among unskilled workers — to the devastation of local economies.
“Agriculture’s important. It employs a population that’s vulnerable, with limited alternatives, and its’ going to be difficult to replace ag in the Valley if policies are in place to eliminate it or reduce it,” Shires said in an interview to discuss the 34-page report he researched and wrote entitled “The Implications of Agricultural Water for the Central Valley.”
Shires, an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, was commissioned by the Westlands Water District to do the study.
It’s the second of two reports looking at the economic importance of water on Valley economies — particularly on Fresno and Madera counties, which are serviced by the Westlands district, the nation’s largest water district — and the effects here on governmental water policies.
“The purpose of these studies is to provide an insight into unintended consequences of the ways that decisions by the state and federal water policy boards have affected those who live and work in and around this agriculturally-focused portion of the Central Valley,” states the latest report, released earlier this month.
Part of the report’s purpose is to collect facts about water, agriculture and their importance to counter the sometimes false claims of people arguing that ag is using too much of the state’s water, said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager for external affairs for the Westlands Water District.
“We have to deal with opponents of agriculture in general, and (they) are consistenly using misleading information in terms of water policy,” he said.
“Once the land that supports this critical national asset is dedicated to other purposes, and once the industrial infrastructure that supports the processing and distribution of these crops are gone, they are almost impossible to rebuild,” the report states.
“All it takes is enough water to make it work — a problem that humans have been solving since the first patch of crops were planted in prehistoric times. With the technologies available, we should be able to solve it today.”
And an important step in achieving this would involve state lawmakers developing public policies that prioritize water for agricultural uses, Shires said.
“So there is no explicit statement of what are our policies and how we will handle things” regarding water in state policies, he explained.
“So when we do have a drought, the response is haphazard, and we have piecemeal responses,” Shires said.
“To understand what the state loses by not having a coherent and effective water strategy that combines adequate storage with policies that allow for a consistent and reliable flow of water on a year-to-year basis, one must imagine what it would be to have one,” the report states.
“On a macro level, such a strategy would likely have a more robust storage capacity and better understanding of the true biology of the state’s ecosystems with specific investments in technologies that would allow for micromanagement of local ecologies rather than the gross water flow strategies used today.”
While Shires said he sees California voters recently passing a $7.1 billion bond initiative to improve the state’s water infrastructure and the state requiring mandatory regional plans to reduce groundwater pumping in an effort to restore aquifers as steps in the right direction, he wrote that “California is a long way from such a forward-looking water policy and billions of dollars in capital investments from realizing it.
“The state also needs to reconsider its super-prioritization of environmental uses [for water] over other uses.”
Among such examples are policies limiting the delivery of some water from Northern California south to the Valley via the Central Valley Project, which includes water being directed from farms to other waterways and eventually to the ocean in order to preserve fish populations, Amaral said.
Significant losses of working farmland due to drought or urbanization could have devastating effects on the Valley’s economy, the report continues.
Amaral noted that it’s not just farmers and farm workers affected if farming is reduced, as people in other careers, schools and cities also would be adversely affected.
“While it may not have the greatest value-added contribution to the state’s GDP, it does provide jobs, livelihoods and communities to literally hundreds of thousands of Californians across the state. Moreover, these [farm workers] are among the state’s most vulnerable — having the fewest alternative economic opportunities upon which to build their lives.”
Shires estimated that in a “low water scenario” of a continued drought, the number of unemployed people in Fresno County alone could increase by more than 50,000 people, more then doubling the current number of unemployed there.
And while many former farm workers might want to enter new careers, the report states that “With Fresno’s relatively low educational attainment workforce (especially among agricultural workers), the ability to transition to other occupations would be bounded by both the availability of these positions and the ability of the existing training infrastructure to retrain them for the opportunities that may exist.
“From the perspective of the local community, the real question is whether individuals would stay put or whether they would leave,” says the report, which notes that Detroit lost a quarter of its population between 2001 and 2010 after losing its core industry, automobile manufacturing.
“If the worst-case scenario were to unfold in the Central Valley, it could be a similar story with production (in this case growing crops) shifted elsewhere, domestically or overseas,” and communities here would lose tax revenues due to reduced economic activity and taxable incomes.
Other losses would include reduced funding for local school districts, which would be particularly hard on small, rural school districts in the Valley with high ratios of families working directly or indirectly in the ag industry, the report continues.
“If there was an 80 percent reduction in the number of households in the region, it could result in the closure of many of these local schools.”
And on top of all this, a large exodus of people seeking work outside the Valley also could suppress property values.
“The bottom line is that a collapse in the agriculture economy could lead to the destruction of these small communities, turning them into the ghost towns of the 21st century,” the report states.
Read the report
To read “The Implications of Agricultural Water for the Central Valley,” go to the Westlands Water District website at wwd.ca.gov.