Environmental group lauds farms’ water conservation, urges more

Tim Hearden/Capital Press A pump takes water from a main canal south of Mendota, Calif., and sends it to a farm. Sierra Club California credits farmers with recent gains in water efficiency but says more can be done to conserve.

SACRAMENTO — A California environmental group credits farmers with making strides in improving irrigation efficiency in recent years but asserts more could be done.

For instance, at least 40 percent of farms still rely on outdated irrigation systems and should take advantage of state and federal grants to help pay for upgrades, argues Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.

The group also calls for the state or a consortium of groups to advance policies to better manage groundwater and buy about 100,000 acres of degraded farmland on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, some of which could be used for solar farms.

“We may see changes” in the next few years in the kinds of crops that are planted, Phillips told the Capital Press. “But I don’t see us moving away from having a lot of agriculture in the state because there are just lots of areas in the state that are good places for agriculture, and we have a lot of people to feed.

“My position has always been … it’s not our business to tell farmers what to grow,” she said. “It’s our business to tell agencies they should give clear signals that agriculture is only getting as much water as the environment can afford to give to agriculture.”

Phillips’ comments come as farmers and environmentalists have been at the center of an intense debate over water use as California endures its fourth straight year of drought. Some environmental groups, such as Restore the Delta, have criticized Gov. Jerry Brown for mostly sparing agriculture from mandatory water cutbacks imposed on cities this spring.

In turn, many farmers say they’re already saving as much water as they can amid a second year of surface water shutoffs and cutbacks, and they complain that state and federal water agencies haven’t made similar cuts to environmental uses of water.

An estimated 400,000 acres of cropland were fallowed last year to save water and between 600,000 and 1 million acres will be fallowed this year, according to state officials and farm groups.

“There’s no way that we can conserve our way out of this problem,” said Gary Beene, a Helm, Calif., almond, cotton and tomato grower. “If they could capture some of that water when it’s running through the (Sacramento-San Joaquin River) Delta, we might be able to solve some of this.”

Groups such as the California Farm Bureau Federation complain that half the state’s overall surface water supply is kept in-stream or sent to refuges to benefit the environment. Phillips wouldn’t confirm or dispute that percentage, but she echoed state officials’ assertion that fish and wildlife have struggled with the drought, too.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife had to shut down some of its hatcheries last year and move about 150,000 coho salmon that were trapped in low water levels within the Klamath River watershed, director Chuck Bonham has said.

“We think what ought to be counted is ... allocated water,” of which agriculture uses 75 percent to 80 percent, Phillips said. “The environment is getting just enough to survive.”

The level of water conservation among growers may depend on the region, said Kevin Greer, who operates a mobile irrigation laboratory for the Tehama County Resource Conservation District. A similar mobile lab in the southern San Joaquin Valley covers an area that is “almost 98 percent micro-systems” and makes as many as 170 contacts with growers a year, Greer said.

“We have a lot more systems up here (in Northern California) that are not as efficient,” he said, noting that about 35 percent of micro-irrigation systems he tests have problems with distribution uniformity.

Greer said the number of calls he gets from growers has gone way up during the drought. He had about 50 farm evaluations scheduled even before the season started this year, and he expects to do more than 100 farm visits.

Sierra Club California — the legislative and regulatory advocacy arm for the larger Sierra Club organization — notes that total crop-applied water fell by 15 percent between 1967 and 2007, according to the state Department of Water Resources. But flood irrigation in the state still uses about 13.5 million acre-feet of water per year, the organization contends.

Phillips also said ag has been “its own worst enemy” by fighting groundwater monitoring and management regulations enacted by the Legislature last year that will save their water source in the long run.

“When you talk to anybody who’s involved in water policy … they need data,” Phillips said.

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