More With Less?

by Curt Burnett on August 17, 2009

Vegetables…produce substantially more revenue per unit land or water: vegetables account for only 16% of the irrigated acreage but use 10% of the applied water and generate 39% of California’s crop revenue.


from More With Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California, a Special Focus on the Delta by H. Cooley, J. Christian-Smith, and P. Gleick

Over the weekend I read a 67-page report from the Pacific Institute which discusses some very practical measures which would allow California agriculture (and by implication the Central Valley) to survive and thrive on less water. What I most appreciate about this study is the concern it shows for the economic health of agriculture and the livelihoods of farmers and their business partners. The other positive is that its recommendations are not extreme, and in most cases match trends that are underway, driven by ongoing shortage.

The report has a number of legislative recommendations aimed at doing away with some perverse incentives to waste water. It goes into water law (California has one of those hybrid Riparian/Appropriation systems discussed in one of my water law posts) and recommends some minor changes. One of these is a classic change already made in many states faced with water shortages:

Define instream flow as a beneficial use in California

“Beneficial use” is a legal term in an approprative system, and it determines what constitutes a legitimate appropriation which establishes and maintains a water right. What this means is that leaving the water in a river in order to maintain an adequate volume of flow is a legitimate use which can keep a water right alive. (In Australia this use of water has been given the name “conveyance”, and is an important feature of that country’s new approach to water law.)

The concrete suggestions for water saving are as follows:

  • Modest crop shifting
  • Smart irrigation scheduling
  • Advanced irrigation management
  • Efficient irrigation technology

The thing to note about these approaches is that all of them are already happening at some level, so this is not a fantasy approach.

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