Agriculture

Water dominates California Food & Ag Summit discussion in Modesto

Irrigation water pours into the Pilger lateral canal at Dickenson and El Capitan School Road in rural Merced in May. At Friday’s California Food & Ag Summit, speakers said competing demands for water could mean trouble.
Irrigation water pours into the Pilger lateral canal at Dickenson and El Capitan School Road in rural Merced in May. At Friday’s California Food & Ag Summit, speakers said competing demands for water could mean trouble. Merced Sun-Star

Water issues dominated discussions during Friday’s California Food & Ag Summit in downtown Modesto, as speakers urged farmers to get involved in finding solutions.

Competing demands for water – to drink, grow food, protect fish, sustain aquifers and bolster the state’s economy – could trigger trouble ahead, speakers warned.

“We have to assume we’re going to have another dry year,” said Dee Dee D’Adamo, a Turlock resident who is on the State Water Resources Control Board.

Californians are going to have to figure out how to “use every drop of water multiple times,” D’Adamo said. She was among 10 speakers at the summit, sponsored by Rabobank, the Central Valley Fund and PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Among the big water proposals being considered in California is the Bay Delta Plan, which could reduce how much river water Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin county irrigation districts could divert for farming.

“I’m very concerned about that proposal and the impact it’s going to have on this region,” D’Adamo said.

Rather than just opposing river diversion restrictions, D’Adamo suggested irrigation districts may be able to negotiate some kind of compensation deal that might help pay for improvements to their water delivery systems. She said that could lessen the impact of losing access to that river water.

There also are fears, however, about how groundwater levels could be impacted if there’s less surface water available for irrigation.

Speaker Sunne Wright McPeak, who grew up in Merced County and is now president of the California Emerging Technology Fund, shared a story about her personal experience with falling groundwater levels.

The Class of 1966 Livingston High School graduate recalled how a school assignment required her to gauge the water table level in her family’s well on Weir Avenue. McPeak said she found water 12 feet below the surface.

But the last time her father dug a well on their property, McPeak said, he had to drill down 200 feet to find good drinking water.

McPeak said that while she supports transferring surface water from one part of California to another to meet the state’s various needs, the impact on groundwater sustainability must be considered.

“You can’t be impairing the viability of the water basin,” McPeak explained after her presentation. She said people in each water basin should set goals for where they want water levels to end up, and then take actions accordingly.

To get water basins in balance, there will have to be controls on groundwater pumping, predicted David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association.

“That’s where this is heading. We shouldn’t kid ourselves,” Guy cautioned. He said expanding California’s water storage and conveyance system also is necessary.

While this month’s passage of the Proposition 1 water bond will boost those efforts, Guy said, more water projects are needed. “If we cared as much about water as we cared about sports arenas, we would make them happen,” he quipped.

Vernon Crowder, a senior vice president and analyst for Rabobank, focused many of his summit comments on water issues, but he also talked about agricultural land values.

Crowder said the booming almond industry has been driving up values on open land.

As an example, Crowder presented a chart showing how Stanislaus County almond orchards climbed in value from $12,000 an acre in 2006 to $23,000 an acre in 2013. Stanislaus’ walnut acreage values soared even more, doubling from $12,000 to $24,000 during those seven years.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

  Comments