California drought: Who gets water, who doesn't, fuels calls for change (+video)

As the Imperial Valley, with access to out-of-state water, thrives, stricken Central Valley farmers are striking over state water restrictions. As water shortages turn dire, age-old contracts are suspect.

By , Staff writer

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    The dry bed of the Stevens Creek Reservoir is seen on March 13 in Cupertino, Calif. Lack of seasonal rain has meant water shortages for Californians this winter. Gov. Jerry Brown has asked for a 20 percent reduction in water usage.
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California’s drought may be statewide, but for now, depending on where you live, the experience of the state’s worst water shortage in history is significantly uneven.

Residents of the tiny northern town of Willits, for instance, who rely on reservoirs that have run dangerously low, are just now back down to a Phase 4 water emergency (out of a possible five) with mandatory conservation measures, such as a 35 percent usage cut and a ban on all new water hookups. The town of some 5,000 tops the state’s Department of Health list for communities that are in danger of running out of water.

At the same time, farther south, farmers in the Imperial Valley who still have access to a steady supply of water shipped in from the Colorado River, are busily tending fields of alfalfa, broccoli, cabbage, and lettuce, among other crops.

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The reasons for these disparities are historically complex, with many contracts drawn up decades ago. In the case of Los Angeles, they can also be controversial – as anyone who has seen Hollywood’s take on southern California water wars in “Chinatown” (1974) might agree.

Even as Imperial Valley farmers are surviving the drought, Central Valley farmers, who do not have access to out-of-state water and must rely on state water allocations, are striking this week over tightening water restrictions.

But the one thing farmers and city-dwellers can agree on is that as population pressures increase, these water shortages are likely to grow worse.

As California tackles the thorny problems of balancing urban and agricultural water demands, the state is helping chart a road map for the rest of the country, says David Cassuto, an expert in water law and professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. “Every time California has a drought, there is a revisiting of these urban agricultural contracts and some changes are made,” he says.

But this time, the situation is more dire.

“Will this drought emergency bring about more significant changes?” he asks. “The answer is that it needs to. There is no question that this drought has provided a more urgent wakeup call than any in the past, because it is more severe. It's not if, but when and how."

The contracts will have to be revisited, he says, “because there is simply no way anyone has come up with to sustain current contracts and patterns.”

Such talk sends a chill through the hearts of multigenerational farmers of the Imperial Valley, such as Jack Vessey, whose father and grandfather tended the lands he now farms. He and many of his fellow businessmen fear that, once again, when water runs short, agriculture will lose out to urban needs.

“The cities have much more political power than the farmers,” he says. The Imperial Valley contract for Colorado River water was amended a decade ago to sell water to a needy San Diego, and many farmers mow must fallow thousands of acres a year to meet the terms of the sale to San Diego. Overall, the nonprofit California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC) estimates that water shortages statewide will drive some 800,000 farm acres into fallow this year.

Mr. Vessey is quick to counter what he feels is a false perception that farmers are wasteful with water. “We are far more efficient than in the past,” he says, noting innovations such as as drip irrigation.

The overall agriculture industry has boosted production per acre-foot of water by some 85 percent since 1967, with a 14 percent reduction in actual water use, according to the CFWC.

Equally damaging, notes Vessey, is the perception gap about the importance of what agriculture does. “We provide half the nation’s produce,” he says, in addition to providing work for the local economy. “We have around 400 workers here whose jobs depend on these crops,” he adds.

Vessey suggests there is a “serious disconnect” between farmers and urban dwellers, and that this leads to talks of cutting off water supplies to farmlands in favor of the major cities. “Kids these days think milk and bread just comes from stores,” he says. Initiatives sponsored by Imperial Valley farmers to counter the education gap include putting gardens in urban schools, he says.

The farmers' concerns make sense, says Doug Parker, director at the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California. He expects “long-run re-allocations, though we may be talking decades into the future,” he says via e-mail. On the flip side, he says he does not believe that the agricultural community appreciates how much the urban sector is spending to increase or stabilize their own water supplies.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Los Angeles uses the same amount of water it did in 1970, despite adding a million residents since then. The area’s Metropolitan Water District has invested in new reservoirs and underground water banks, meaning L.A. may not need to impose water rationing for at least another two years.

However, Mr. Parker adds, there is also “an urban belief that agriculture can just produce more food with less water.” Agriculture is far more efficient than it was 30 years ago, he points out.

Nonetheless, combined consumption by agriculture, industry, and municipalities continues to outstrip the savings, exacerbated by population growth in both urban and rural areas, says Lynn Wilson, academic department chair in Public Administration at Kaplan University, who is serving on a climate change delegation to the United Nations. Perhaps the “disconnect” between urban and agricultural water use is in part perception; each needs the other to thrive in the interconnected economy and society, she says via e-mail. “Perhaps a new way of looking at water needs to be considered.”

Indeed, if this drought is teaching anything, it is the importance of shifting from long-distance water use to local water practices, says Hadley Arnold, cofounder and director of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif. She says we have been relying on importing water over large distances for a large portion of our water supplies for centuries, she says, “but that’s going to shift.”

The move to localize water supplies will happen through a mix of initiatives, she says.

“We are going to start to see a combination of conservation, water recycling, and multitiered treatment levels and, importantly, storm water reclamation and capture over time that will reverse the proportions,” shifting the needs for imported water to more local usage, says Ms. Arnold.

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