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How Food Companies Can Help Drive Agricultural Water Conservation

Farmers with high-priority water rights have little incentive to conserve water, but food companies have leverage to help drive sustainable practices, writes Kirsten James of Ceres.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Drought farm versus city1
On Nov. 13, 2015, Bart Fisher, farmer and president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District, examines the cotton in his field in Blythe, Calif. The third-generation farmer, who was born in Blythe, left 29 percent of his farmland fallow in 2015.Jae C. Hong, AP

Last week I was a guest on an “inspection” trip of the Colorado River Aqueduct, the engineering marvel that delivers up to 1 billion gallons (3.8 billion liters) of water daily to Southern California from the Colorado River hundreds of miles to the east.

Organized by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, these inspections are a relic of an old piece of administrative code. Today they’ve become a well-choreographed public relations effort – right down to the framed MWD mission statement on the walls of the bedrooms provided to guests.

All of the history and statistics thrown at us over the two-day trip tell an incredible story of the aqueduct as the backbone of Los Angeles’ and Southern California’s tremendous growth. Without it, Southern California would not be the population hub and economic center that it is today. But the story is also about a 1930s engineering feat that pumps water from the intake at Lake Havasu 242 miles (390km) west to Lake Mathews, up a total elevation of 1,617ft (493m) to approximately 19 million urban customers. And it’s a story that’s been ripe with controversy since the project’s inception in 1927.

When I placed my hand on the aqueduct and felt the vibration of the water rushing at 1,605 cubic ft (45 cubic meters) per second beside me, the magnitude of this engineering accomplishment sank in. But a short stop with the Palo Verde Irrigation District (PVID) near Blythe, California, was what really captured my attention, because the challenges I saw there are a microcosm of our state’s larger water woes.

Water flows through the Palo Verde Irrigation District in California, which has high-priority rights to Colorado River water. (Kirsten James)

Water flows through the Palo Verde Irrigation District in California, which has high-priority rights to Colorado River water. (Kirsten James)

An agricultural region of 131,000 acres (53,000 hectares) growing alfalfa, wheat and cotton, PVID has a “number one priority” Colorado River water right for 104,500 acres (42,300 hectares). That means PVID can take as much Colorado River water as it wants before holders of lesser rights such as MWD can have their “share.” And it pays nothing for this water. Some growers in the district utilize flood irrigation practices, and water-intensive alfalfa, grown as feed for cattle, is the most prevalent crop. Needless to say, Palo Verde landowners don’t have much, if any, incentive to conserve water because their taps will continue to flow – drought or no drought.

That also means that PVID, although most have never heard of it, has become a big player in California’s water debate. In 2004, MWD entered into a 35-year agreement with PVID to develop a land-fallowing program. Fallowing land allows farmers to transfer water to MWD for a payment; close to 30 percent of the acreage in the valley is currently fallowed.

In addition, MWD purchased approximately 30 percent of the land in the valley to obtain the water rights and is now the majority landowner. MWD can direct the fallowing of some of this land and also work with tenant farmers to reduce consumptive water use. Others also have their sights on PVID’s coveted senior water rights. In 2016, a Saudi Arabian dairy paid $31.8 million for 1,790 acres (720 hectares) of land near Blythe to grow alfalfa to ship back for feed for its cattle.

With an ironclad water right that allows for limitless water use, how can we encourage water efficiencies so that enough remains for the environment and other beneficial uses such as drinking water for MWD customers?

One way is for the food companies that source from the Palo Verde Valley and other water-stressed areas to engage more directly with their suppliers to strengthen farming practices that conserve water and protect watersheds.

In 2015 Ceres released a report, “Feeding Ourselves Thirsty,” which ranked 37 major food companies on the quality of their corporate water management. The report found that some are taking wide-ranging actions to manage water risks across their operations and supply chains, but most have a long way to go. Notably, meat, dairy and agricultural product companies – those most likely to source crops such as alfalfa – scored most poorly. An update of the report will be released later this year.

Food companies ought to be working on water efficiency with farmers in their supply chains because as water supplies tighten in California and other major growing regions across the world, traditional approaches to managing commodity shortages and high crop prices – such as price hedging and geographic diversification – will become less effective.

Key strategies that food companies could employ include setting sustainable agriculture policies and time-bound sourcing goals, and collecting data from farmers on their practices while providing assistance and incentives for improvement.

In addition, companies can engage in water policy discussions to ensure California’s rules and regulations promote maximizing the water we already have. That’s why Ceres formed Connect the Drops, a 28-member business-led coalition that includes companies such as General Mills and WhiteWave, which have operations and supply chains in California. The group works with our state’s decision-makers on water policy reforms to ensure a sustainable supply.

This year may be a “bumper crop year,” according to MWD, thanks to all the rain we’ve received. While that’s welcome news for the region, many believe that a Colorado River shortage declaration is inevitable in the very near future for the states that form the Colorado River Compact.

Such a declaration could eventually curtail California’s water allotment, which is why we must figure out how to live under a scenario with less Colorado River water. Companies engaging directly with farmers – whether in the Palo Verde Valley or elsewhere in the Colorado River Basin – are central in helping us achieve a sustainable water future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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