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Water infrastructure most pressing issue for California agriculture, say speakers

by Rand Green | February 18, 2009
TULARE, CA -- Educational seminars at the World AG Expo, the world's largest annual agricultural equipment show, are not always well attended, presumably because the show's 100,000 attendees are too busy looking at the 1,600 exhibits and buying equipment they need for their operations.

But when A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department Food & Agriculture, stepped to the podium on the opening day Feb. 10 for a seminar, he found himself facing a packed house of farmers who were clearly concerned about the many issues threatening the future of California agriculture.

Mr. Kawamura expanded beyond his assigned topic, which was the California perspective on the 2008 farm bill and its impact on specialty crops, to address several issues of deep concern to growers. Of three or four "all- consuming threats" to agriculture that can potentially "shut an operation down overnight," he said, first on the list is "the water situation. Our water infrastructure just needs to be fixed."

California is now in its third year of drought, and there will been severe water cuts to agriculture this year, including an expected zero allocation for the 660,000-acre Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley. But the issue is not just about "whether it is going to rain enough in this next two months," he said. "There is a longer-term challenge. As the state's population approaches 50 million people, "we don't have the infrastructure to allow for as much farming as we would like" and also take care of the water needs of the population base and the environment.

Agriculture, consisting largely of specialty crops including fruits and vegetables, is the state's largest industry, but acreage in many crops is declining due to water shortages and other issues, he noted.

"The idea that we are going to prescribe how much water each farmer should use - I am not in favor of that. I never have been and never will be," Mr. Kawamura said. What is needed is "an infrastructure improvement" for water storage and conveyance in the state's Sacramento River Delta system to minimize flooding during periods of heavy rainfall or runoff as well as to deliver stored water where it needs to be during times of drought.

Even some of the environmental groups that had once opposed additional water infrastructure are beginning to lend their support, recognizing that "the environmental component of the Delta won't get fixed ... if we don't fix some of the other up-stream things," Mr. Kawamura said.

At a press conference held here Feb. 9, California Sen. Abel Maldonado (R- Santa Maria), who is a grower of strawberries and vegetables in the Santa Maria Valley, called water "the biggest issue facing California." He said that he has grown tired of supporting water bonds in the legislature that do not include infrastructure improvement on the promise that "next year" water storage and conveyance infrastructure will be in the package.

"I'm out of 'next years,' " he said, vowing to oppose any additional bonds that do not include the needed water infrastructure provisions.

Speaking at the event's opening ceremony on Tuesday morning, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples noted that Texas and California share many things in common, including being "the two largest agricultural- producing states in the nation." As such, they share many concerns regarding various threats to agriculture. It is essential that those threats be addressed, he said, because "just as we don't want to be dependent on foreign oil, we must not be dependent on foreign food."

Some have blamed many of California's problems, including the water shortage, on farmers. But in remarks at the opening ceremony, California Assemblyman Danny Gilmore (R-Fresno) told the audience that far from being a cause of California's problems, "you here today are the answer to the economic crisis facing California."