Fresno State drought study seeks consensus on water use

A dry irrigation canal runs past the Cecelia Packing Co. in Orange Cove, Calif. A California State University-Fresno study examining the drought's impacts on the San Joaquin Valley suggests more recycling of water and seeking water from non-traditional sources.

Authors of a California State University-Fresno study that suggests ways to get the most out of limited water in the San Joaquin Valley say they hope their research fosters dialogue and political compromise.

The study, which estimates drought-related valley agricultural losses at as much as $3.3 billion, recommends that everyone have a “water budget”, make better use of recycled water and explore other “non-conventional” sources of water.

While they profess not to take sides, the university’s water experts say they want to spark “deep political discussions” about water policies and the future availability of water in California.

Gillisann Harootunian, director of university initiatives and the editor of the report, said she thinks such discussions could lead to water-sharing agreements similar to the ones being implemented in the Klamath Basin.

“The stakes are high in the San Joaquin Valley, and the stakes are getting higher,” Harootunian told the Capital Press. “I think we could have (agreement), and I think if we came up with water budgets and every sector knew it and understood why they had a water budget, reaching that kind of path I think would overjoy people in itself because things right now are untenable.”

The study, funded by the Wells Fargo Clean Technology and Innovation Grant Program and two valley nonprofit organizations, sought to examine not only economic loss but also public health, employment and residential water impacts from the four-year drought. The researchers focused on impacts in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare counties.

The research found public health impacts such as elevated instances of Valley Fever, West Nile Virus and diarrheal illness as well as a potential increase in such mental health issues as anxiety, stress and depression, according to a summary.

Among the team’s recommendations is to avoid single uses of water and look for water from non-conventional sources.

“‘Avoid single uses of water’ was meant to be broad-based,” Harootunian said. “As an example, if you look at water in a toilet, it’s as pure as drinking water. So we should have dual plumbing that recycles gray water for the toilet and we should stop flushing the purest drinking water down our toilet every day.”

David Zoldoske, director of Fresno State’s California Water Institute, suggests that urban wastewater, oil field water and brackish ground water could be treated and used for agriculture.

“Ag has had the luxury of having a lot of pristine water,” Zoldoske said. “That’s been fine at the time, but now there are a lot of demands for water.”

He also suggests capturing more water in wet years and replenishing aquifers by applying it to farmland with porous soils at levels that won’t harm crops — a proposal similar to one made this summer by researchers at University of California-Davis.

The Fresno State research is among several recently released studies on the drought’s impacts on California agriculture. UC-Davis researchers in August estimated the drought will cost agriculture statewide about $1.84 billion in 2015 and lead to the fallowing of 542,000 acres that lack water for irrigation.

A study by the Pacific Institute, a water think tank, asserted that California growers have enjoyed record-high crop revenue and employment at the cost of massive ground water pumping, which it calls unsustainable.

The Fresno State study tried to examine the broader impacts of the drought rather than just agriculture, with a goal of building some consensus around the region regarding solutions, Harootunian said.

“In order for movement forward to occur, you need a broad-based consensus,” she said. “There are always going to be competing ideas, but when it comes to water, we need to have active political discussion and education. When a broad-based consensus is reached, everyone can be on board with water budgets.”

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