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.
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
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. …