Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Delta-based farms can curb water use, study says

By Mike Taugher

If farmers who rely on the Delta watershed made greater use of weather sensors and other technology to more efficiently irrigate crops, they could reduce their water use by 13 percent — an amount equal to more than half of all the water pumped out of the Delta, a study to be released today suggests.

And farmers could further cut water use in the beleaguered watershed by planting less pasture and more fruits and vegetables, the study says.

The Oakland-based Pacific Institute concluded in the report that farms in the regions of the state that depend on the Delta and its upstream tributaries — the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare basin — could use significantly less water and still maintain a healthy agricultural economy.

"There are lots of these things that farmers are already doing, but they have to happen faster because the Delta is collapsing," said Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute.

Although there is dispute over the degree to which water pumped from the Delta is to blame for the environmental crisis, those problems are forcing water managers to reduce deliveries. The cutbacks have especially hurt farms, which use four times more water than cities and industries combined.

Gleick said that despite pressure for a proposed canal to carry water around the Delta and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's push to build more dams, decisionmakers Advertisementshould first look at how much water could be saved by maximizing efficiency.

"They're moving fast without all the information they need," he said. "It's irresponsible to make decisions about infrastructure when you don't know how much infrastructure you need."

State water and agriculture representatives said that improved conservation is important but that alone will not solve the Delta's water supply and ecosystem problems.

"We strongly support conservation, both agriculture and urban," said Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources. "It's got to be part of the solution. We don't think conservation replaces the need to deal with storage as well as fixing Delta conveyance."

A California Farm Bureau water attorney agreed.

"The magnitude of the problem is just too big to fool people into thinking ag conservation can get us out of having to debate (a possible peripheral canal)," said Chris Scheuring, adding that the farm bureau is still neutral on the canal.

"The more drip (irrigation) we can put in, where it pencils out, the better," he said. "That compares to the more low flow toilets and the less swimming pools, the better."

The report is the latest of several from the Oakland-based environmental research group on California water use. In 2003, the institute reported on ways to improve water use efficiency in California cities.

The report released today recommends a series of changes to financial incentives, regulations and education to improve the efficiency of water use on the farms that take water upstream of the Delta, in the Delta and from pumps that draw water out of the Delta.

Among the recommendations:

n"‚Grant rebates or tax exemptions for purchases of efficient irrigation equipment;

n"‚Reduce farm subsidies for low-value crops that use a lot of water;

n"‚Implement new water rate structures and require farmers in the federal Central Valley Project to fully repay the cost of the project; increase regulation of groundwater;

n"‚Require greater water use efficiency through stiffer regulations;

n"‚Better monitor and track how water is used in California.

The report is available on the Pacific Institute's Web site, www.pacinst.org.

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