By Matthew Fienup
As forecasts of torrential El Nino rains have given way to the hard reality of another year of drought on the Central Coast, calls to punish farmers or to seize farmers’ water are once again being voiced. Not only do these calls embody ignorance of California water law, but in Ventura County they are simply out of step with the role that farmers are playing in the effort to end the water shortage.
As you read this, a remarkable process is unfolding as Ventura County water users and local groundwater regulators grapple with responsibilities imposed on them by 2014 legislation known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. SGMA requires high-risk groundwater basins to create comprehensive sustainability plans with the goal of preventing undesirable, long-term consequences for groundwater resources. While the SGMA process has devolved into bitter fighting between water users in other parts of the state, the story in Ventura County is very different.
In a surprising partnership, farmers within Fox Canyon are working with local groundwater regulators and with the cities of Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo to fundamentally change how groundwater is managed. Farmers have demonstrated seriousness about achieving substantial cuts to groundwater extraction under SGMA, and they are working on concrete plans to alter incentives in ways that create real economic returns to water conservation. Farmers, city representatives and staff of Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency all deserve to be commended.
The involvement of farmers in innovative solutions to local water problems should not come as a surprise. The fact is, farmers in Ventura County have been leading the way for more than two decades. Consider that in the late 1980s, following the last big drought, total groundwater extraction by farmers in Fox Canyon declined sharply and then settled at a level that has been stable for more than 20 years. During that same 20-year period, production of notoriously water-hungry strawberries has increased 145 percent. Production of raspberries has increased an astonishing 425 percent. Ventura County farmers are doing vastly more with the same amount of water.
That degree of innovation has carried through to produce unique solutions during the current drought. Ventura County farmers are working with the city of Oxnard to use advanced purified water from the city’s GREAT Program for crop irrigation. The Ventura County Farm Bureau is administering the Agricultural Water Use Efficiency Program, which provides $1.2 million in matching funds to help growers adopt water-saving technologies on local farms. Even more remarkably, farmers recently proposed that all groundwater wells be monitored with state-of-the-art, radio telemetry in order to increase the accuracy of monitoring and to strengthen enforcement of local water regulations. A groundbreaking pilot program is already underway. And farmers are the driving force behind an effort to design and implement a system of water trading within local basins. More than any other measure, water trading will fundamentally alter incentives for water users. Under trading, as water becomes more scarce, such as during a prolonged period of drought, remaining allocations of water become more and more valuable, increasing the economic returns to conservation. This will drive even greater efficiency gains along the lines of those that farmers have been making for years.
Ventura County’s unique collaboration among local farmers, cities and regulators has caught the attention of water managers in nearby counties, in Sacramento and as far afield as the state of Kansas. Water managers in these places are looking to Ventura County for leadership as they grapple with their own water shortages. Rather that impugn Ventura County farmers or any other local water users, residents should celebrate the exceptional work that is being done on our behalf.
• Matthew Fienup is an economist for the California Lutheran University Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University and teaches courses in econometrics and environmental economics.