10 Feb 2010

Future of Irrigated Agriculture pt2

David Zoldoske and Juliet Christian-Smith spoke about irrigated agriculture on Tuesday. Some thoughts on his talk:
  • Lower Tule River Irrigation District applies water in perhaps a "wasteful" manner. But what he showed was that Pixley Irrigation District next door pumps heavily from the aquifer that the two districts share, and pumps most heavily near the border. So while making LTRID more efficient may seem like a good idea, in this case basin wide efficiency is higher than field level efficiency because PID reuses LTRIDs percolation. I have learned recently that LTRID and PID also are jointly managed. Although there are many water districts in California, they are not all independent. Many are members of water associations or broader districts that facilitate groundwater recharge and use. I have heard different economists puzzle over why California has so many water districts, but my impression is that many independent districts are independent in name only. While there may be a few hundred on paper, many share general managers, resources, etc.
  • He says that between 2003 and 2008, $1.5 billion has been spent for on-farm water conservation. Impressive, I think, but I have no context for that number.
  • He mentioned that farmers can use more water within an Integrated Pest Management framework and refrain from using as many pesticides, etc. This is a very important theme in understanding agriculture - we want agriculture to be efficient overall in its use of resources, not just efficient in its use of water. Hopefully if the prices are right the farmer makes the correct decision.
  • Zoldoske mentioned in the Q&A establishing a fixed amount of irrigated acres, and then setting aside the water to farm those acres, and essentially letting agriculture do its thing without continual meddling. I think he is implying getting off the alfalfa farmers' backs... I think this is an odd approach though because I doubt it is possible to come up with any single number that makes sense, especially as conditions change each year. The benefit we get from having agriculture use 80% of the developed water supply is some degree of flexibility if in dry years people need a bit more.

Juliet presented her joint work from the Pacific Institute about water conservation in agriculture. Here are my brief thoughts (David has expounded quite a bit on this issue already):
  • She wants to reduce barriers to irrigation investment. Large upfront costs may discourage farmers from adopting more efficient irrigation technology. While true, upfront costs are supposed to discourage. Those farmers that have trouble getting financing (because of uncertain crop prices, poor water reliability, whatever) should think twice about investing more in their business. That is good for society as a whole - it prevents wasting of all resources, not just water. As the recent housing bubble hopefully made clear, subsidizing homeownership can impose large costs upon the rest of us when inhabitants no longer can pay. Admittedly, neither of us knows why the non-adopters aren't adopting (I asked), so I could be wrong. But given that many farmers in California have adopted more efficient technology, it seems unlikely that A) non-adopters need an extra push from government (let the district do that on its own), or B) the extra push would be cost-effective.
  • She calls for "a new way of thinking" in dealing with water issues in CA. Her report mentions how important low prices are in discouraging change, so how do we get farmers to consider the value of water in alternative uses? Better water markets? Something else?
Bottom Line: Given the history of water policy at the state level, why still look to Sacramento for some sort of fix?
Addendum from DZ -- Dan Vink wrote me with this:
I am the General Manager of both Lower Tule and Pixley and I can assure you that both Districts are very independent with separate Boards that meet regularly and hold distinct and separate opinions and positions. There is no cross-over between the two Boards. We are also jointly managed which allows for increased efficiency that some of the smaller, singularly managed Districts don’t have. I would put our operation up against any public agency in this state and most private sector operations.