Study examines benefits of full farm water supply


Issue Date: September 13, 2017

Restoring full surface-water supplies to the western San Joaquin Valley would stimulate economic activity in the region and benefit national security, according to a new report.

Titled "The Implications of Agricultural Water for the Central Valley," the report was commissioned by the Fresno-based Westlands Water District and written by Michael Shires, an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University.

The Westlands region has suffered from frequent shortages of water from the federal Central Valley Project, with the district receiving no CVP water in both 2014 and 2015. Shires analyzed how the region's economic activity would be affected if the district were again able to receive its full allocation of water on a consistent basis.

"It is estimated that the potential increase from this additional water availability could result in the planting of more than 100,000 additional acres, increase agricultural-related employment by nearly 20 percent and produce an increase in overall employment of about 20 percent, or more than 5,000 jobs," Shires wrote.

On the flip side, the report said, a protracted absence of water would "devastate the local economy." Land fallowing would surge dramatically, Shires wrote, and some farmers "would simply go out of business." The negative impact would reverberate throughout the greater Fresno region, the report said.

Citing a variety of factors, the report said other economic sectors would be unlikely to fill the gaps, should long-term water restrictions reduce agricultural employment in the Central Valley.

"It is highly unlikely that manufacturing would suddenly replace farm jobs lost if a combination of environmental events and public policy choices led to the loss of a significant share of Central Valley agricultural jobs," Shires wrote, adding that a collapse in the agricultural economy could destroy a number of small, rural communities in the region, "turning them into the ghost towns of the 21st century."

While such scenarios are bleak, the report said, they are avoidable.

The report offered proposals for restoring water reliability, including formulation of a state plan to survive a 10-year drought without shutting off water to rural communities. New water storage must be a key part of that plan, Shires said.

"The state should invest extensively in new storage to save for the '(not-)rainy day,'" the report said, urging the state to examine and re-engineer its current water system "to maximize the connections between existing and new storage resources."

In addition, the report said, the state "needs to reconsider its super-prioritization of environmental uses over other uses," and to expand use of recycled and desalinated water, particularly in urban areas.

"Agricultural production is a national security asset—especially in today's uncertain global trade climate," the report concluded. "It is essential to have a reliable and accessible domestic food supply."

California-grown food—produced under stringent regulations to protect the environment, employees and food safety—is a "critical national asset," Shires wrote, which simply needs sufficient water to succeed.

Humans have been solving that problem "since the first patch of crops were planted in prehistoric times," the report said. "With the technologies available, we should be able to solve it today."

The full report is available on the Westlands Water District website at wwd.ca.gov.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.