Editor’s note: This opinion piece was first published Dec. 1 in The Bakersfield Californian. Reprinted with permission.
For decades, California has been paralyzed, prevented from securing an adequate water supply by endless debate, red tape and litigation over where, how, and even if the state should create more water supply infrastructure. In the last few years some major farming regions have received almost no water from state and federal projects built specifically to provide water for food production—yet calls to further choke off water to these and other farming regions have grown even louder. As farms are starved of water, California sacrifices critical food production, jobs in agriculture and the economic health of entire regions of California.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and this shouldn’t be our destiny. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent call for a direction, California’s Water Supply Strategy: Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future, projects—for the most part—an overdue end to the decades of futzing and fighting that have transformed the state from water secure to water crisis. With the strong warning that some aspects of Newsom’s strategy could be counterproductive—particularly upending the state’s water rights laws—it is now time for follow through.
California policymakers, starting with the Legislature and Newsom’s own regulatory agencies, must change course and make big investments—some of which the Governor explicitly called for—to protect California’s position as the backbone of America’s food production while ensuring the water security of residents and businesses in every region. California’s agriculture industry—the most productive in the country and the world—is feeling the pressure more than any industry in the state.
An analysis from Yale University calls California “America’s garden,” noting that the State produces two-thirds of all fruits and nuts grown in the U.S. Because of the failure to secure adequate water for farming, cutbacks in food production are already occurring and will get progressively worse.
Up and down the state, farm fields are being left unplanted, susceptible to wind-blown erosion and loss of soil health. Californians are confronting yet another dry year as 2023 approaches, defined by emergency conservation orders, wildfires and rolling blackouts. California’s existing water system, which has not seen significant improvements since 1968, is not equipped to handle climate change, a population of 40 million and extreme drought. According to a UC Merced study, the drought from 2020-2022 cost California’s agriculture sector about $2 billion and nearly 19,420 full- and part-time jobs. The California Farm Water Coalition warns of another 23,000 jobs lost and at least $3.21 billion in economic losses related to water shortages. This is not sustainable.
California farmers have developed the most sophisticated and technologically advanced food production systems in the world, creating more healthy foods with the highest commitments to sustainability and efficient use of resources, especially water. But there is a reality that cannot be avoided: Producing the foods we need requires a lot of water.
The Governor stated: “We have a renewed sense of urgency to address this issue head on…we can’t do the same thing anymore, and I think all of us recognize that.” As our water supply crisis threatens the state’s farming regions with uncontrolled economic and social harm, Newsom and the Legislature have an opportunity—indeed, an obligation—to act boldly and expeditiously on immediate generational solutions including more storage, improved conveyance, regulatory certainty and new supply. California farmers, businesses and residents all deserve and desperately need definitive action.