California State Water Board Chair Provides Insight into California’s Historic Drought

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Editors Note: AgFunder recently sat down with Felicia Marcus, Chair of the California State Water Resources Board. Marcus will be leading a discussion on Living in the Reality of the California Drought at GAI Agtech Week on June 22-24, 2015.


“Both farming and water literacy is sorely lacking. It’s not a critique, it’s a testimony to how far we have come as a civilized society,” says California State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “In some ways we have such a successful system that people can take it for granted. People in rural communities don’t take water or food for granted, and people in third-world countries certainly don’t take it for granted.”


California is currently experiencing its fourth consecutive year of exceptional drought. With over 27 million acres of farmland, the state’s agriculture industry is feeling the pressure. Many California farmers have found themselves at an uncomfortable crossroad: find new ways to farm with less water, or watch their businesses dry up like the rivers and lakes around them.


Marcus, who is slated to speak at GAI AgTech Week in San Francisco, CA, found the conversation on farming and agricultural literacy particularly important after Governor Jerry Brown announced the latest round of water restrictions on April 1, 2015, which directed the Water Board to step up its regulation of large urban water agencies and to enforce a 25% reduction.


“The reaction was shocking in some ways in that folks saw that order, which was the fourth executive order, and spent a lot of time saying ag was exempted from cutbacks, which showed that the reporters didn’t realize that this was the fourth executive order and that many parts of ag had been experiencing cutbacks due to curtailment and contract allocation cutbacks,” says Marcus. The most recent water cutback order from the Governor’s desk was intended to prepare urban areas for yet another year without sufficient rain or snowfall.


“As I go out in urban California and work with reporters, I’ve probably spent more time explaining ag to urban reporters and residents and the fact that urban residents may be far more connected to a central valley farmer than the guy down the block who is over-watering his lawn because they are eating and consuming foods grown by ag,” says Marcus. “Its not that ag is a separate entity, its that they grow food that people in urban areas eat as well as other regions in the country and around the world. I’m surprised folks didn’t realize their connection to ag.”


The drought has caused many otherwise unsuspecting—or previously uninterested—spectators to take a closer look at water usage across the state, particularly in the agriculture industry. The media has generated a number of reports labeling certain crops or sub-industries as unapologetic water hogs, particularly the almond and beef industries.


“People want to be sure something is fair. In the absence of context they want to find a villain,” says Felicia Marcus, Chair of California’s State Water Resources Control Board. “Whether it is a particular crop or bottled water or fracking—whatever people are concerned about they want to know that they are being taken care of.” The water-usage issues associated with almonds, however, may be less symptomatic of their inherent production needs than the recent uptick in their global demand.


“With almonds, part of the challenge is the rapidity of planting and where they are being planted.” In 2014, almond plantings rose 25 percent from previous years. More importantly, of the almond trees sold between 2013 and 2014, 72 percent were purchased as new plantings. What’s causing farmers to go nuts for almonds? Burgeoning demand overseas, particularly in China where almonds and other nuts are taking the snack market by storm.


According to Marcus, however, the villainization of one crop or another reflects an inaccurate understanding of how water allocation works in California. “Part of what makes this system hard for non-experts to understand is that we are governed by our water rights system. And that water rights system creates very uneven results.”


California’s water rights system dates back to early Roman and Greek law, providing landowners whose property abuts a watercourse with so-called riparian water rights. The law also recognizes appropriative rights, which involves non-abutting properties siphoning water from a nearby watercourse, and prescriptive water rights, which involves establishing a right to draw water from a watercourse based on a pattern of previous use.


In 1914, the California Legislature established the Water Board—now titled the State Water Resources Control Board—in order to deal with the large number of disputes that arose between water users. Since 1914, folks without an existing water right must file an application with the Water Board and secure a permit.


The new system, however, is not retroactive. Water rights that existed prior to 1914 still carry the same force and effect. As a result, there are at least four different types of water rights recognized in California. The relationship between each type of water right involves a morass of legal complexities. Some right holders are senior to others and the lineage of junior right holders often resembles a long list established over the course of many decades.


“The extent that farmers have shifted to be able to create twice as much ag value out of the same drop of water is extraordinary.” As Marcus sees it, the biggest hurdle for farmers when it comes to adapting to the state’s historic and pervasive drought comes down to money. “Getting resources to all of the folks in ag who want to make their farms more efficient, and who have farms that can be made more efficient, would be great.”


GAI AgTech Week will take place from June 22-24, 2015. Marcus is scheduled to speak on Tuesday, June 23, at 3:30 p.m. For a full program agenda and list of speakers, click here.


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