When Gov. Jerry Brown announced his unprecedented water use reduction order last week, California farmers were largely spared.
They quickly developed another problem: Bad PR.
At issue was the apparent disconnect between Brown’s focus on urban water use and the fact that agriculture – not cities or towns – accounts for roughly 80 percent of all water used by people in California.
Newspaper and television stations hammered on the statistic, while critics counted gallons of water required for different foods. The almond, an especially profitable and water-heavy crop, became a national symbol of California’s water problems, forcing growers to fight back by promoting the nutritional value of their food.
Never miss a local story.
Members of the California Water Alliance, a Hanford-based group of agricultural interests, called their consultant in dismay.
“All of a sudden it’s ‘Farmers use 80 percent of the water,’ ” said the consultant, Hector Barajas. “It caught a lot of farmers by surprise.”
In an effort to push back, industry officials began meeting in recent days with politicians, business people and journalists. They posted graphics online showing an alternate interpretation of agriculture’s water use, and they plan to run Internet ads.
On the total water use numbers themselves, there is broad agreement. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, about 9 million acres of farmland in the state are irrigated, representing about 80 percent of all water used by people.
But that figure excludes roughly 50 percent of all water in California dedicated for environmental purposes, and farmers complain some water in the ecologically sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is off-limits to them.
On Thursday, Matt Sparks, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, distributed a Washington Examiner editorial lambasting protections for Delta smelt.
Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the PPIC, said that while stringent environmental standards have affected the agriculture industry’s access to water, “the problem is it’s grossly overstated.” More than half of California’s so-called “environmental water” occurs in rivers in the state’s North Coast, far from agricultural users, he said.
“There is no denying the fact that in human applications of water ... 80 percent of that goes to agriculture,” Mount said, “You can’t change that.”
Farmers argue that so-called “environmental water” should be taken into account when calculating total water use, putting agriculture’s consumption at closer to 40 percent.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, made this case to reporters outside a drought forum in Sacramento on Thursday.
But with numbers, Wenger said, “It’s just so hard, you know, once that snowball starts going down the hill ... it’s pretty hard to get in front of it and divert it.”
While Wenger spoke, Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the federation, said 80 percent is “a statistic that’s used as a weapon.” He suggested that instead of saying a certain amount of water is used for agriculture, say that water is “used to produce food.”
Wenger fears that if the drought persists, farmers will be vilified, potentially giving rise to efforts to restrict their water rights.
“If we’re in a 10-year drought or a longer drought,” said Wenger, a walnut and almond farmer, “with the rhetoric that we’re seeing today, we would see water rights re-appropriated.”
He said he voiced his concerns at a meeting Brown called Wednesday with water and farm officials and environmental groups at the Capitol. Wenger said Brown’s executive secretary, Nancy McFadden, was sympathetic, volunteering that the administration was “getting beat up on this 80 percent number.”
The meeting came just days after Brown was asked about agriculture’s heavy water use on ABC’s “This Week.”
Brown, who ordered a 25 percent reduction in urban water consumption, said of the 80 percent statistic, “Yeah, you bet it’s true.”
But the Democratic governor went on to defend farmers, who he said have already been punished with diminished state and federal water allocations. Farmers have fallowed thousands of acres of fields.
In the ABC interview, Brown said farmers are “not watering their lawn or taking longer showers. They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America.”
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said Thursday that “it’s understandable that people want to point fingers at first.”
But she said California’s farms are “something to be valued” and that if “you like fruit and vegetables, you like agriculture.”
This feeling is widely held outside of the administration, as well. Agriculture is so prominent in California that it has an advantage in any public relations war over water use, said Barbara O’Connor, a political analyst and retired communications professor at Sacramento State.
“It’s part of the Golden State,” she said. “It’s part of our economy. We have farm to fork up here. People are into it emotionally.”
But O’Connor said pressure may build if the drought persists. Until then, she said, the public is unlikely to turn on agriculture.
“When restrictions on water use in cities become much more rigid and all the palm trees start to die in the medians and people are pulling out their yards, then we can talk again,” she said. “But right now, no ... I think the average person treasures (agriculture). It’s part of our legacy.”
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.