Farmers urged to save water, shift emphasis

SACRAMENTO -- California farmers can grow more food more profitably if they switch to water-saving crops and change their irrigation practices in response to the state's drought, according to a study released today.

A report issued by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute says farmers in the Central Valley could save enough water to fill up to 20 new reservoirs by making several changes to curb wasted water.

About 25% of the state's water-intensive crops like rice, cotton, corn, wheat and alfalfa should give way to fruit and nut trees and row crops such as tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and melons that can be more selectively irrigated, according to the report.

Farmers should use drip or sprinkler irrigation systems instead of flooding grain fields, and crops should only be watered when they need it, a practice requiring more intensive soil and plant monitoring.

Farmers are trending toward many of the practices already, said Pacific Institute president Peter Gleick. But Gleick said the nonpartisan research organization's report is the first comprehensive look at how much water farmers could save.

"It's been a missing piece of the information in the California water debate," he said.

Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought in June because of two years of below-average rainfall, low snowmelt runoff, shrinking reservoir levels and court-ordered water restrictions to protect crashing fish populations.

Even if the rain and snow return this winter, global warming could mean less water in the future even as the state's population creeps toward 40 million.

Rising sea levels and earthquakes also threaten earthen levees that channel water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta east of San Francisco, a primary source of water for agriculture.

State water officials last week announced they will begin buying water from farmers in Northern California to sell to parched Southern growers if supplies dry up next summer.

Against that backdrop, the institute's report estimates its recommendations could save up to 3.4 million acre-feet of water each year. An acre-foot of water is enough to cover an acre of land with a foot of water, or the amount of water used annually by an average family of four.

Just one of the proposals -- watering crops only when they need it -- would save enough water to fill Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park 10 times over, Gleick said.

Gleick said the institute was careful to make recommendations that use readily available methods and technology and wouldn't harm the state's farmers. The report predicts that growing more high-value fruit and vegetable crops that consume less water could boost growers' productivity and profits.

Many of the institute's suggestions are already being implemented by local Valley farmers, said Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District on the Valley's west side.

"All those things are exactly what's happening in the Westlands Water District," she said. "We only use water when necessary."

Woolf said farmers in the district use thousands of miles of drip lines and monitor their soil with high-tech sensors. She also said the water shortage already has forced farmers to cut back and that as much as 250,000 acres of land was not farmed in the district this year.

Woolf, however, is resistant to suggestions that farmers should shift to less water-consuming crops. Instead, she said, the market should dictate which crops are grown.

This year, for example, the worldwide demand for wheat has motivated west-side farmers to invest heavily in the water-needy crop. But as the market balances out, farmers will shift back toward other crops that don't require as much water, Woolf said.

Manuel Cunha Jr., the president of Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, said the institute failed to recognize how difficult it would be for farmers to switch to a new set of crops.

"They really don't understand farming," he said. "You have to get rid of all your farming equipment and go buy new equipment. You don't just go from cotton to tree fruit."

Meanwhile, legislators are considering a bipartisan proposal made by Schwarzenegger and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein along with agricultural and business groups to restructure the state's water system.

The $9.3 billion plan includes building more reservoirs and possibly a canal routing fresh water around the brackish delta.

The Pacific Institute study argues that the emphasis should be on saving water instead of new water projects that place a greater financial burden on the public.

The report suggests the state could avoid planting 10% of its fields as one drought response. And it says California should consider retiring 1.5 million acres of poorly drained land in the San Joaquin Valley to save water and pollution cleanup costs.