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In Newsom’s long-term water strategy, ag makes a fleeting appearance

Faced with the worst drought in 1,200 years and a dwindling water supply, Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined a new, long-term water strategy for California at a press conference on Thursday. His plan, he said, would prepare the state for a hotter, drier future.

But while Newsom’s strategy includes a range of forward-thinking solutions to the Golden State’s water crisis, what he failed to mention is arguably just as interesting. Newsom did not include a statewide water-conservation mandate, and he did not significantly address usage by California’s thirstiest industry: agriculture, which uses about 80% of state water allocated for human use.

“Mother Nature is still bountiful, she’s just not operating like she did 20 years ago — hell, she’s not operating like she did 10 years ago,” Newsom told an audience of reporters who gathered in front of a half-finished desalination project in Antioch. “We need to balance our needs as an ag state so that we’re not going back and forth, urban versus ag.”

In both the press conference and an accompanying 16-page report on the state’s long-term water strategy, Newsom stressed that drought is increasingly becoming a “permanent fixture” in the American West. In addition to its current historic drought, he said, the state is projected to lose up to an additional 10% of its water supply by 2040 as climate change worsens.

“I don’t know how we’re sleeping at night,” Newsom said, referring to climate change. “I mean, [is] anyone paying attention to what’s going on?” He proceeded to reference the ongoing McKinney Fire in the north of the state, which has killed four people so far, and the recent 1,000-year flood in Death Valley — two extreme weather events that were likely fueled by climate change.

California has long approached water scarcity as an engineering problem, and several of the Newsom administration’s proposed solutions, contained in its report, continue that tradition. For example, the state plans to increase its desalination of brackish groundwater by 84,000 acre-feet a year by 2040 and expand its ability to capture stormwater by 500,000 acre-feet a year in the same time frame. An acre-foot of water can sustain three Southern California households for a year, on average.

While Newsom’s plan does not focus on California’s powerful agriculture industry, the state’s strategy does address several projects and policies that could impact farmers’ water access — particularly in the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Many growers in the valley rely on the State Water Project, a network of canals, pipelines, and reservoirs that shuttles water from the state’s wetter north to its parched south, and the Newsom administration’s report praises the state’s tunnel project, which it says would pump water south more efficiently and sustainably.

According to a report issued by the state last month, the tunnel project could also harm a range of endangered and threatened species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a marshy network of sloughs near the San Francisco Bay Area. Antioch is located on the delta, and its mayor, Lamar Thorpe, criticized the tunnel plan in his remarks at the event. Newsom acknowledged that the tunnel project is “controversial” and noted that conveyance systems like the State Water Project could deliver recycled water in the future. The project is still undergoing environmental review and could take 20 years to complete.

The report also notes that California’s arcane water-rights system needs to be overhauled, and it vows to continue implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, California’s flagship law that regulates the use of the state’s groundwater, which farmers have increasingly relied on as the drought drags on.

The state’s strategy document devotes an entire section to reducing water demand throughout California — but remarkably, it never mentions agriculture. Still, at Thursday’s press conference, state officials stressed that the strategy depends on permanent reductions of water demand in both urban and agricultural areas.

In a 2019 study, the Public Policy Institute of California found that San Joaquin Valley farmers may need to fallow an additional 500,000 acres — 10% of their land — by 2040 as the climate changes.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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