California Rethinks Water Issues with Long Drought over, State Focuses on New Methods of Conserving Precious Resource

By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 1993 | Go to article overview
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California Rethinks Water Issues with Long Drought over, State Focuses on New Methods of Conserving Precious Resource


Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AMERICA'S largest farm state, producer of half the nation's fruits and vegetables, has had six years of drought temporarily slaked by the biggest flurry of storms in years.

But the time to reinvent from the top down has come for a burgeoning number of private growers, environmentalists, and bureaucrats - visionaries and stick-in-the-mud type, alike. They are coming out of the ground like worms after a rain.

"This is the greenest I've seen the state in 20 years," says rice farmer Allen Garcia, sitting in a small plane flying over the Sacramento Valley in full bloom. "But if we don't plan for the next 20 years, California agriculture will be a dying business."

Farmers have long enjoyed 80 percent of the state's water, while 20 percent has been divvied up by urban dwellers and recreational users. Drought, federal crackdowns to save endangered species, and burgeoning population needs are changing all that.

To cope with the influx of 18 million new inhabitants since the late 1960s, California has paved over more farmland than the area of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey combined. Twenty million more inhabitants are expected by 2010, and the time has come to prepare for where they are going to live and what they are going to eat and drink, Mr. Garcia says.

What is decided here has major implications for the price of everything from almonds to alfalfa, beans to barley, in supermarkets across America.

Because he peppers his conversation with phrases like "coordinated resource planning," and "multiple-use, sustainable agriculture," Garcia has been labeled a progressive by environmentalists. Twenty years ago, he was growing rice in ways that only last year became a model for a major program to multiply waterfowl wetlands for the Sacramento Valley. Water think-a-thon

Today, on oak-studded chaparral near here, Garcia and the Northern California Water Association (NCWA) are hosting a futuristic, water think-a-thon to consider seriously what else must be done.

At the meeting, the state's top farm, agriculture, and environmental officials will rub shoulders with ordinary farmers and field conservationists. A day of aerial tours and barbecue brainstorming is planned as a precursor to a more detailed convention here in the fall.

"This state bloomed from desert, but there hasn't been a new dam, levee, or aqueduct built in this state since the 1960s," says Kip Solinsky, NCWA's executive director. "Everyone knows there are other ways to increase the yield of water and manage what we already have. But we need to talk and test the concepts."

The six-year crisis here has garnered new support for water-trading markets that can disperse surpluses and deficits. New federal, state, and local legislation has been chipping away at the distribution of 80 percent of water to farms. New ways to pump and store water underground, to reclaim it after use in households and to conserve it, are being considered.

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California Rethinks Water Issues with Long Drought over, State Focuses on New Methods of Conserving Precious Resource
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