The Future of Farming in the Central Valley
The face of the Central Valley has changed tremendously in the 150 years since the California Gold Rush. Consider William Brewer’s observations in Up and Down California in 1864-1869: “The San Joaquin plain lies between the Mount Diablo Range and the Sierra Nevada — a great plain here, as much as forty to fifty miles broad, desolate, … without water during nine or ten months, and practically a desert. The soil is fertile enough, but destitute of water, save the marshes near the river and near the Tulare Lake.”
A combination of individual entrepreneurship and federal policies encouraging settlement of the West transformed the valley into what it is today: the most productive agricultural region in the world. In 1997, farms in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys generated roughly $16.6 billion in gross revenues, 61 percent of the state’s total $26.8 billion in agricultural revenues. Nearly half the nation’s supply of vegetables is grown in the Central Valley. Over 25 percent of the valley’s jobs and income are related to agriculture.
In addition to being the state’s top-producing agricultural region, the Central Valley is one of California’s fastest-growing areas. From 1994-1996, the state Department of Conservation reported that nearly 18,000 acres of irrigated farmland statewide were converted to urban use, 8,100 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. This increased urbanization — along with reductions in water supplies in parts of the valley — has generated concern for the future of farming throughout the Great Central Valley.
“It’s an economy, a way of life, a connection to the past, and a whole landscape that are at risk,” said Suzanne Redfern, president of Redfern Ranches in Dos Palos. “It may be debatable whether those elements are as valuable as what might replace them, but everyone agrees that changing them constitutes an enormous shift in the character of much of California, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
As California prepares to enter the 21st century, there is much talk about what the future holds for farming. Researchers say to determine the future, one needs to look no further than the recent past — for even as agricultural acreage in California has declined, agricultural production has increased.
This trend is attributed, in large part, to the fact that farmers have planted more acres of vegetable crops, grapes and deciduous orchards — higher value crops, according to a 1996 report, Future of Irrigated Agriculture, published by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). Growers also have abandoned marginal lands and switched to the most modern irrigation technologies. (CAST is a nonprofit organization composed of 30 scientific societies and individual members. It’s mission is to identify agricultural issues and interpret related scientific information for use in public policy decision making.)
These farming trends will continue, and the ability to adapt to change will be key for farmers as they confront the challenges of the future, say both the CAST report and another national study, A New Era for Irrigation, published in 1996 by the National Research Council (NRC). (NRC is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.)
“Irrigators feel a combination of pressures today unlike at any time in the past. They are experiencing competition from new directions, and they are finding ways to adapt. The irrigation sector, like the rest of the economy, is in flux,” concluded members of the Committee on the Future of Irrigation in the Face of Competing Demands in the NRC report. “To succeed in the future, [irrigated agriculture] must be innovative, responsive to change, and a leader in attempts to resolve conflict with other water users.”
Water supplies, farmland conversion and environmental restoration are three of the main issues facing the valley in this new era. Yet, these categories don’t capture the broad diversity of viewpoints on these issues. Urban growth is the driving force of the ag land preservation movement in the San Joaquin Valley. Farmers in the Delta and Sacramento Valley, however, are more concerned with CALFED Bay-Delta Program proposals to convert farmland to environmental habitat or levee setbacks.
“There is great concern in the Sacramento Valley in land conversion for environmental purposes because it’s happening without local involvement or a comprehensive planning program,” said Rich Golb, executive director of the Northern California Water Association. “There can be opportunities to convert farmland for environmental purposes, but we have to be very careful how it occurs.”
Environmentalists and agricultural representatives are often at-odds over water use, but they share a common opposition to suburban sprawl, and there is some common ground on other issues. “There are cases where habitat preservation means taking some land out of agricultural production, but in a lot of cases, habitat protection is an opportunity to preserve farmland,” said Barry Nelson, senior fellow at Save San Francisco Bay Association. “I think there are opportunities to come together with the agricultural community on things that are less threatening to ag and will help preserve ag and wildlife habitat.”
Yet even when it comes to issues of water supply, there is no one agricultural perspective. Those with secure water rights want to protect them against other users — even other farmers. Those who already have experienced cutbacks, on the other hand, are more willing to negotiate and develop innovative supply programs such as water transfers and groundwater banking.
“It’s difficult to get ag together on the solutions when you can’t even get them united on what the problems are,” said Stephen Ottemoeller, general manager of the Madera Irrigation District and a representative to the agricultural water caucus on Bay-Delta issues.
The agricultural water caucus, which meets periodically with a number of urban water agencies (the ag-urban work group), is one of several efforts underway to try to get agriculture to speak with one voice on water issues. Water also is of being addressed by the Modesto-based Great Valley Center, a non-profit organization working with farmers, city and county officials, water suppliers and residents throughout the valley to develop a common view of the future. “Without a thoughtful strategy for economic growth, the environment, job development and agriculture, water supply, land use and air quality will be constant sources of conflict,” said Carol Whiteside, president of the center.
While conclusions reached in the CAST and NRC reports bode well for the agricultural industry as a whole, the future is less clear for individual growers. Researchers for both studies predict that some land will come out of production, in part to accommodate urban growth. They also see a future of less water for agriculture, and advocate the creation of water markets.
“The farmer with the ability to read the market and make changes will survive and prosper,” said Richard Howitt, professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. He served on the CAST task force. “Innovation will be key and the farmer who has the potential to capture added value in the food chain — such as Harris Ranch beef and Lundberg Farms rice – will be able to take extra advantage of the food market.”
This issue of Western Water explores the future of farming in California’s great Central Valley, including water supply, land preservation efforts and major conclusions of the CAST and NRC studies.
By Sue McClurg
A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our on-line catalog and add the September/October 1998 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
The Foundation was in good company recently when we joined eight other organizations, professionals and volunteers at the Smithsonian Institute on Sept. 16 in Washington, D.C. There, we received a national Chevron Conservation Award. The awards honor individuals and groups who protect and enhance renewable resources. An important factor in the selection of honorees is their proven ability to work effectively with diverse organizations, achieve consensus and meet difficult environmental challenges with practical solutions. We were recognized for our work in public and school education. Education Coordinator Judy Wheatley traveled with me to Washington. Chevron paid our expenses and gave us an honorarium for our work.
Some of the other winners included a woman who helped save America’s only living coral reef, a doctor who rescued the home of rare albino deer from development, an organization in Maine that brought stakeholders together to save Atlantic salmon and the only national organization dedicated exclusively to preventing the extinction of rare native plants of the United States.
While in the nation’s capital, we had the opportunity to meet with Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Bob Matsui about water issues such as MTBE and flood control, respectively. California congressional representatives Matsui and John Doolittle were in discussions about an issue we follow closely: flood control options for 400,000 residents of Sacramento. Hopes are fading that they will agree on a compromise position. Sen. Feinstein had just testified on the subject of last month’s Western Water magazine, MTBE, specifically her bill to allow California to meet federal air standards without using gas reformulated with MTBE.
An issue on our minds lately has been the future of irrigated agriculture in the great Central Valley. The new nonprofit Great Valley Center, located in Modesto, was formed to look at the valley’s economic, social and environmental well-being. Of course, any discussion of the valley’s future begins and ends with a discussion of trends in water use for agricultural production. The Center assisted the Foundation with some funding for this issue of Western Water and our 1999 Water Leaders Class
I’m happy to announce that we have a new employee at the Foundation, Christine Schmidt (no relation!) who joins our staff as our development director. In other words, she looks for grants and other project funding sources that fit our work and mission. Coming from the American River Parkway Foundation and the East Bay Agency for Children, she has a broad background in fundraising. We’re delighted to have her professional advice.
In the News
Six months after the March 16 release of the CALFED Phase II interim report and three proposed alternatives, debate continues over water storage and conveyance in the ongoing effort to craft a long-term Bay-Delta solution. (See March/April Western Water for more information.)
CALFED, a consortium of 14 state and federal agencies, is set to release its final Phase II report identifying a preferred alternative by year’s end. (A rough draft of that document is expected to be issued shortly.)
In response to concerns over conveyance, CALFED adopted a framework agreement in which the solution will be implemented in stages to allow for immediate action on some items while gathering additional data for future decisions. Under this scenario, the isolated conveyance facility in Alternative 3 would not be constructed for several years and then, only if there was demonstrated evidence that a through-Delta solution had not met the program’s water quality and salmon enhancement goals.
Although CALFED staff determined that it was the technically superior option to improve water quality, reduce water project impacts on fish and improve Delta flow patterns, an isolated facility similar to the Peripheral Canal was controversial from the start.
The staged approach, however, concerns the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). In a recent policy position, the politically powerful water supplier reiterated its support for the canal to improve drinking water quality. “The current approach offers few benefits for urban Californians,” MWD Chair John Foley said in a prepared statement, adding that “… a phased decision making process offers no clear commitment to provide water quality and reliability benefits.”
Even a staged approach may not win the support of northern Californians, environmentalists and Delta farmers, who remain staunch opponents of a canal.
“There is concern among Delta users and others that the isolated facility is the hidden agenda of southern California,” said Lester Snow, executive director of the CALFED Bay-Delta Program.
“We want southern California to recognize that in any scenario, you’re dealing with 10 years of through-Delta so we need to make it work the best we can,” he continued, adding that for CALFED, it is a matter of constantly trying to strike a balance between the competing interests.
The issue of increased storage was hotly debated during negotiations over a proposed $1.7 billion water bond. Those talks fell apart in the final hours, and lawmakers did not succeed in getting the bond on the November ballot.
Environmentalists do not believe more water storage is necessary, pointing instead to increased water conservation, agricultural land retirement and water transfers as sources of “new” supplies. Water users, in particular agricultural interests, are calling for additional onstream (by raising existing dams) and offstream storage to capture excess flood flows. And even though environmentalists are more supportive of conjunctive use projects, including more groundwater storage, farm interests are wary of this approach because of possible impacts to other groundwater users.
With release of the Phase II report, a 105-day public comment period will begin. “With the Phase II report complete, we’ll have a strategy on the table so hopefully we’ll have even more focused comment on the components,” Snow said. “We need to get down to solving this problem.
The 1994 Bay-Delta Accord will be extended until the end of 1999, when the final preferred alternative, including a record of decision, is to be completed.