California Falls Short When Helping Farmers Save Water | Civil Eats

California Falls Short When Helping Farmers Save Water

watering a farm field with sprinklers

California’s ongoing drought is expected to have a devastating impact on Central Valley agriculture this year, to the tune of $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs lost. Even at the start of the summer, farmers are already being forced to dip into their ‘savings accounts’ — groundwater reserves — to make up for reduced surface water deliveries.

Meanwhile, the California legislature is in the midst of a mad rush to get a passable multi-billion-dollar water bond on the November ballot.

It’s not like we haven’t been here before, or won’t be here again. California has a long history of drought, and climate change models suggest farmers should get used to dealing with water scarcity.

And when faced with previous water crises, California has usually asked the voters to invest in water resources. Of the 16 water bonds to reach the ballot since 1970, California voters approved 15 of them. Yet here we are again–this time, with what is potentially the most expensive water bond to date. But will the state spend those bond dollars in a way that makes sense, given the realities of climate change?

Some parts of California’s agriculture have made tremendous strides in saving water over the past four decades. Drip irrigation and micro-sprinkler technologies have become the norm in some areas. But the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) still conservatively estimates that we could save an additional 1 million acre-feet per year if we tried. That’s about enough water to irrigate all of the grain produced in California annually.

Are we truly investing in an agricultural system that can handle the long-term ramifications of increased water scarcity? Or have we fallen short?

Follow the Money

To find out where investments in farm water efficiency have gone, Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) looked at spending numbers from the previous two water bond measures, as well as federal funding for farm water use efficiency in California.

CAFF investigated technical assistance and support for on-farm water stewardship practices, which include irrigation scheduling, using reclaimed water, cover cropping, and other efforts to build soils that can better hold water. These types of low-cost practices can work in tandem with efficient irrigation to cut down on water use—without growing less food.

CAFF wanted to know how much of the money earmarked for farm water use efficiency has actually gotten down to the farm level. The answer? Not much.

Pipelines, Canals, and Pumps

According to CAFF’s analysis of 2002 water bond spending, the vast majority of funds meant to improve farm water use efficiency have been spent at the irrigation district level on infrastructure and engineering projects like pipelines, canals, and pumps.

Only 8% of those dollars went to outreach, education, and technical assistance projects for implementing on-farm water stewardship practices.

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Investments in infrastructure are important and can achieve real results—but only when properly tied to on-farm end-use practices.

For example, a federal program [pdf] retrofits irrigation districts’ infrastructure to provide on-demand water, and then finances farmers to create flexible irrigation schedules and use pressurized irrigation systems, thereby saving about a quarter of the water used in the seven pilot irrigation districts.

California’s water bond dollars have not tied infrastructure and on-farm investments together in this way—a missed opportunity.

Funding Technology But Not Practices

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), run by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), provides cost-share incentives for growers to adopt farm-level best management practices that protect natural resources and improve environmental outcomes.

Between 2002 and 2010, EQIP spent most of its water conservation money on equipment and system upgrades like drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers. These technologies received close to seven times the dollars spent on best management practices, such as cover cropping and mulching.

Installing more efficient technologies is not always a simple choice. Half of California agriculture is flood irrigated, which is an important way that groundwater is recharged with surface water in some regions.

And although upgrading irrigation technologies is usually an important first step in on-farm water management, a new system alone does not guarantee water-use efficiency — farms also need to do things like schedule their irrigation, monitor their soil moisture, compost, and use cover crops.

For example, the berry company Driscoll’s has shown that by adding soil moisture monitoring to the already universal use of drip irrigation on berries, farmers on California’s Central Coast can use up to a third less water.

Many larger farms in water-deficient regions that have strong incentives to save water increasingly turn to private consultants to help them incorporate sophisticated technologies and management practices into their operations.

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But smaller growers, who make up the majority of the state’s agricultural producers, can rarely afford consultants nor the technologies they recommend. This is why public investment in low-cost best management practices and technical assistance is so important.

Moving Beyond the Irrigation District

California legislators are now debating a water bond that has a shot at being passed by voters. We need to do a better job of working directly with farmers on water stewardship practices.

Farms in the state are being dealt a dangerous blow this year. The question is, will we be better prepared next time?


Read CAFF’s full report, entitled Beyond the Irrigation District: Investing in On-Farm Water Stewardship for California’s Future, here.

Adam Kotin is the CalCAN Policy Associate and focuses on clean energy policy and climate adaptation. He has a master’s degree in Environmental Studies from Brown University and has a background in sustainable agriculture and environmental studies, with a focus on climate change and development issues. Read more >

Kendall Lambert is the Water Program Coordinator for Community Alliance with Family Farmers. She facilitates an outreach and education program for wine grape growers on irrigation efficiency and dry farming and currently helps to manage the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative website. She also grew up on a small family farm in Vermont. Read more >

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  1. Paul Underhill
    As a small farmer, I really question the validity of the arguments in this article. Most small farmers are using at least some water conservation technologies such as drip irrigation. Meanwhile, there are plenty of irrigation districts that still have miles to go before their delivery systems are modernized. Many do not cooperate at all with farmers who are receiving NRCS funding, and make on-farm improvements extremely difficult. For example, NRCS will not pay a farmer to pay their irrigation district for the improvements necessary to convert low pressure gravity flow water into pressurized water that can be run through drip or microsprinklers. So the farmer has to shoulder that cost themselves. That's a big disincentive.
  2. Paul Underhill
    Cover crops and mulching are great practices. But there's a lot more bang for the buck to be had by, as you say, "tying on-farm improvements and infrastructure" together. A big first step would be for CA water bonds to provide funds for farmers to offset the $ they currently have to shell out to their irrigation districts just to be able to install water conserving technology.

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