Friday, April 3, 2015

Where are Agriculture's Sacrifices?!

Finally, after four years of drought, the State of California has mandated reductions in urban water use.  After Wednesday's April 1 snow survey confirmed that the Sierra snowpack is somewhere between five and eight percent of normal (does that three percent range in news reports really matter - it's flippin' dry!), Governor Jerry Brown announced an executive order requiring a 25 percent reduction in municipal water use.  As expected, much of the urban media in California and elsewhere has been asking why the Governor didn't mandate similar reductions in agricultural water use.  And so I guess that while those of us who farm and ranch have been grappling with drought since 2012, many of our urban neighbors (at least those in the media) haven't grasped the drought's profound impact on agriculture.

As a rancher, I depend largely on rangelands (that is, grass) to feed my livestock.  On the basis of total acreage, the vast majority of the land that I graze with sheep and cattle is watered by rainfall rather than by irrigation.  Less rain means less grass - we've received about two-thirds of normal rainfall over the last four years, and our grass growth has been reduced by a similar margin.  Simple math suggests, then, that we've cut back our water "use" on our unirrigated rangelands by 33 percent.  We can't replace this "lost" water with other sources - I can't drill a well to irrigate rangeland.  The only tools available to me as a rancher are to purchase hay (too expensive), find additional land (also too expensive, generally) or sell animals (which we've done - we've sold more than half of our sheep in the last three years).

Farmers have also dealt with reductions in water for irrigation.  This year, irrigation districts that receive water from the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) will receive a ZERO percent allocation.  Again, using simple math, farmers that rely on CVP water will reduce their use of this water by 100 percent!  More "fortunate" farmers who irrigate with water from the state water project will only be cut by 80 percent.  To cope with these reductions, some farmers who grow annual crops (vegetables, rice, grains, etc.) have fallowed land.  Other farmers with permanent crops (trees or vines) - which have been encouraged as a way to reduce water use because they can be irrigated with drip and other water-saving technology - have turned to groundwater.  Fallowing a crop that costs $50,000 per acre to plant doesn't make economic sense; farmers who can't tap into alternative water supplies have no choice but to let trees and vines die.

Ultimately, these reductions in water availability and the corresponding reductions in farm and ranch production have reduced incomes and increased expenses for California farmers and ranchers.  Fallowed land directly leads to layoffs - 17,000 by one estimate in today's Sacramento Bee.  These impacts extend beyond the farm gate, too - suppliers, processors and other businesses that serve agriculture or rely on agricultural production have also cut jobs.

I've written about this experience previously, but I think it sums up the urban-rural split with respect to the drought.  Late last spring, after we had reduced our flock of sheep by 40 percent, I was talking with a neighbor about the drought.  She is a smart, well-meaning woman who works in town - and who doesn't have much knowledge of farming or ranching.  I mentioned that the drought had impacted our grazing operation significantly, and in a friendly attempt to commiserate, she said, "I know - I tried to take my kids to the water park in Rocklin last week, and it was closed!"

And so as all of us in California - urban and rural - face a fourth year of unprecedented dryness, we're all making sacrifices.  We're all being reminded that we directly rely on the natural world - on sunshine, water, soil and carbon - for our sustenance.  And I'll bet all of us are looking forward to a return rainy and snowy weather!

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