May 13, 2022

President’s Notes: Dewatering California’s Central Valley… Don’t Laugh; They’re Serious

In a recent blog post, the respected Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) suggests a startling future for the Central Valley.

Noting that “a significant amount of irrigated farmland… will need to come out of production over the next two decades” due to drought and implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the writer suggests converting formerly irrigated farmland into livestock rangeland would keep the land economically productive and “might bring other benefits—including avoiding some of the negative consequences of fallowing.”

It might be tempting to wave this off as unrealistic and impossible. But this is exactly how public policy is often made: Credible experts elevate an idea, advocates step in to widen public awareness and build acceptance within the confines of their own narrative, and pretty soon legislators aligned with those advocates hold “informational hearings,” introduce a bill or a bond measure, and before you know it we have a law, or a program or something that pours cement around what we waved off as a silly idea.

Nothing against our friends in the livestock business, but let’s not concede the obvious: large scale food production belongs in the Central Valley. Our farmers are the best in the world, growing healthy foods with great efficiency and care for the land, water, air and people. Indeed, California is one of only five regions on the planet that can support the diversity, quality and volume of food production that can be achieved in Mediterranean climates, the Central Valley among them.

Those are some of the reasons one-fourth of America’s food comes from the Central Valley, including 40 percent of its fruits, vegetables and tree nuts. All of this is accomplished on less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland. The Central Valley is a strategic resource for the U.S.—a safe and reliable powerhouse of food production that should be of increasing concern given current global conflicts, predictions of food shortages and rising inflation.

We are in the middle of our second extended drought in the last 10 years, and we know that changing climate patterns require adaptation.

But we should apply the same determination to adapt that gave rise to California in the first place. Our political leaders boast about the greatness of California all the time. “Fifth largest economy in the world,” and all that. Great! I agree! But did they forget what California was before the early settlers and their sons and daughters reimagined the landscape they found?

They built. Roads, bridges, dams, aqueducts, freeways, airports, energy generation (including a lot of zero-greenhouse gas hydropower). These and so much more were envisioned and created to adapt to the limitations they found, and the result is the most populous, economically vibrant and diverse state in the country.

However, the state long ago stopped investing in large-scale water infrastructure and its regulatory agencies have done their best to thwart the voters’ clear directive to build more with Prop. 1 in 2014. Still, it’s not too late to get smart.

Adaptation for the San Joaquin Valley (and for California) can and should include a federal and state commitment to using floodwater to recharge our groundwater basins, along with major increases to the state’s surface storage and conveyance capacities to hold floodwaters for later distribution to cities, farms and the environment.

The alternative is to mandate, through both the action and inaction of our policymakers, the destruction of the primary economic driver for 6.5 million people in the Central Valley. Beyond the production of food, our farms form the economic foundation for rural communities in the region.

Every dollar of the $30 billion generated by Central Valley agriculture creates an additional two dollars of economic activity in the region. Agriculture generates one quarter of all private sector jobs in the Central Valley, and every job in agriculture creates 2.2 additional jobs in other parts of the economy.

Would non-irrigated rangeland support these people? No way. The economics simply don’t work, which is why it is suggested that massive expenditures of taxpayer dollars would be needed. In other words, we should accept a regional recession and depression as a foreseeable consequence of public policy.

To suggest the forced conversion of highly productive farmland to unfarmed rangeland is to consign millions of our fellow Californians to either vicious poverty (if they try to stay) or mass abandonment of homes and businesses as they choose more politically, socially and economically welcoming regions of the U.S. Either outcome is indefensible.