California Drought Increases need to conserve Farmland
As many as 800,000 acres of California farmland could be fallowed this year because of the drought and reduced water deliveries to farms that rely on irrigation. The economic toll could exceed $7 billion, including the loss of 20,000 agricultural jobs.
These figures vividly illustrate the devastating impact that removing farmland from food production has on farmers, farm workers and the broader economy. They have given rise to much recrimination and finger pointing about the failure to plan ahead and provide adequate water storage and delivery systems.
Meanwhile, there is another failure of planning that has received much less attention, even though it poses just as great a risk to agriculture, the economy and our food supply.
Since 1990, California has lost more than 600,000 acres of farmland to poorly planned development – urban “sprawl”– and continues to pave it over at the rate of 30,000 acres a year. If this continues, by mid-century California farmers and ranchers will have a million fewer acres of farmland on which to produce our food. To put this in perspective, there are now only about 9 million acres of irrigated farmland remaining in the state.
Unlike much of the land now being fallowed because of the drought, most of the farmland being paved over has relatively abundant, cheap and clean water supplies as well as highly productive soils. Unlike the economic impact of what we hope will be only a temporary fallowing of land, the impact of paving over farmland – including the diversion of water to non-agricultural uses – is permanent. The economic losses will recur every year … forever. And unlike drought, urban sprawl is entirely avoidable as a cause of concern for the future of California agriculture.
Statewide, new development is consuming an acre of farmland for every 9 new residents. Imagine two four-person touch football teams playing on a gridiron with a single referee and you get an idea of how spread out that is. In California's premier agricultural areas like the San Joaquin Valley, sprawl is even worse, accommodating only 6 people per acre of farmland destroyed. This simply cannot continue if California's agriculture is to sustain us for generations to come.
It is time for California’s leaders to get as serious about farmland itself as about the water that makes it productive. Here are some of the things they could do to reduce needless farmland conversion:
- Restore and strengthen the Williamson Act by increasing tax incentives for landowners who formally agree not to develop productive farmland that is most at risk of being developed.
- Emphasize the critical importance of farmland and other rural open spaces by strengthening the conservation provisions of the general plan and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines currently being rewritten by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.
- Dedicate a respectable portion of cap-and-trade auction revenues to better planning and conservation easements to permanently protect farmland – which produces 70 times less greenhouse gases per acre as urban land uses.
- Encourage local governments to review their own plans and land use policies, and adopt strategies to conserve farmland, as called for by AB 1961, now pending in the state legislature.
While doing all we can to assure adequate water supplies for agriculture, we cannot neglect to do what is necessary to conserve the land that is equally critical to food production. Any gains that are made by building new water storage and delivery capacity, and even through water conservation, are already being steadily drained away, acre-foot by acre-foot, by the needless loss of farmland itself.
Edward Thompson, Jr.
AFT California Director
P.O. Box 73856
Davis, CA 95617