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Q&A with Dr. Juliet Christian Smith on the California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply

Pacific Institute Senior Research Associate Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith is a member of the California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply (CRWFS) --
a consensus-based forum for thought leaders to uncover obstacles, identify solutions, and take action to enhance water security for California agriculture, the public, and the environment. CRWFS held a series of meetings beginning in summer 2010 to build a common understanding of agricultural water use, develop a unified set of principles that underlie long-term solutions, and create recommendations for decision-makers and the public on balanced solutions to tough agricultural water issues. Dr. Christian-Smith discusses CRWFS’s latest report and recommendations for California water management and conservation.

Q: The California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply (CRWFS) recommends “agricultural water stewardship” as a more useful concept to guide thinking and decision making for agricultural water use within California. What does the term “agricultural water stewardship” involve?

Juliet Christian-Smith: Water stewardship is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of on-farm practices and regional water practices. Therefore, it is more inclusive than singling out a particular practice -- for instance, drip irrigation, dry farming, or using recycled water. The CRWFS suggests using the term water stewardship in order to be inclusive of the variety of techniques that can conserve water or enhance water resources in some way.

Q: How does this group make recommendations in the Agricultural Water Stewardship report that are broad and balanced, when California’s water debates are classically tense?

JCS: One of the things that is unique about this roundtable is that it brings together a diverse group of stakeholders who have all contributed to the recommendations made in the report. CRWFS members come from the Farm Bureau, Association of California Water Agencies, Nature Conservancy, US EPA, and include individual growers like Bruce Rominger, to name a few. I should point out that the individual members only speak for themselves, and not their organizations, , which may have helped us find significant common ground.

Q: So then, what might agricultural water stewardship look like for water managers? For growers and farmers? For policy makers?

JCS: For water managers, it means looking at a wide variety of stewardship strategies like managing groundwater recharge, off-stream storage, recycling municipal water for agricultural use, and other measures to match water quality to its use.

For farmers, timing is big. Irrigation scheduling can help provide the right amount of water at the right time. Farmers also benefit from soil management – building the organic content of the soil and preserving soil moisture. Community Alliance with Family Farmers has been conducting demonstration days on dry farming particular crops on California’s north coast, which relies a lot on soil moisture management. In some areas of California, frost protection accounts for a significant agricultural water use. In an attempt to prevent freezing, farmers spray down crops, installing wind turbines to mix the cold air layers with warmer air layers can reduce or eliminate the use of water during frost events. There are very specific techniques for regional water practices that optimize agriculture water use, but these techniques are all context-specific.

Policy makers need to improve the current information system so that water managers and farmers can access the public data online. A lot of the data we have now exists in paper files and is stored away in different offices, essentially inaccessible. A more efficient and effective exchange system needs to be put in place. Access to that information can help water managers and growers in their decision-making process.

In many areas, we have little-to-no data. For example, we have not determined the instream flow requirements for many of our river systems. When we understand instream flow requirements for a particular region, we can work backwards to figure out how much water is available. By understanding the constraints and the critical life stages that we need to protect, we can develop viable solutions that work for agriculture and the environment.

Q: But adoption of many of these practices has been slowed by several factors. Could you explain why?

JCS: There has been little support for many growers to take up water stewardship practices. The US relies on trained staff from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs), and, in states like California, cooperative extension offices to educate and inform growers about new practices . However, all of these agencies have seen huge cuts in their funding and staff over the last 30 years. The technical and financial support hasn’t been there, and that’s part of the reason that water stewardship practices are not more wide-spread today.

Q: What’s needed in order to help growers more fully adopt agricultural water stewardship practices?

JCS: It requires a paradigm shift. We’ve created enormous infrastructure to move millions of acre-feet of water through thousands of miles of canals and pipes. But what we normally don’t do is ask, “What can be done on someone’s farm? In someone’s home? In this watershed?” We should also look at small scale solutions, which is part of the soft path approach in water management.

We are beginning to talk about grey and green infrastructure, but we need to include decentralized infrastructure in the conversation as well. There’s a whole set of solutions at local and regional scales, and the way we’ve funded water supply and prioritized propositions hasn’t supported those solutions. California invests billions of dollars in flood protection and water supply projects, some of stewardship practices such as groundwater recharge or off-stream storage can be seen as flood protection or water supply. It’s just that policy makers haven’t defined it as such. We’re beginning to see a change here – for instance, the state’s Integrated Regional Water Management Planning (IRWMP) process – but the focus on more decentralized and regional solutions needs to be adopted far more broadly.

Q: How can California take effective steps to reaching successful agricultural water stewardship goals?

JCS: We need to improve our knowledge base, build stronger support for growers, and foster smart regulations. The first step is collecting the data. California needs to have a much more coherent and empirically-based set of data for every watershed in the state -- this is critical. This means understanding water balances and measuring how much water the agriculture sector actually uses (not using models to estimate use). In addition, it is critical that we gain a better understanding of beneficial and non-beneficial uses. This information would provide the base for moving forward to find solutions for different regions. The state has set aside money for Integrated Regional Watershed Management Planning (IWRMP) which supports groups that try to find regional solutions. It’s a good first step, but we should make sure that these bodies match up with the regulatory requirements.

If we understand which practices are appropriate for each region, we can develop methods to encourage those specific stewardship practices. While you can’t dry farm in the San Joaquin Valley, those farmers can focus on groundwater recharge. Leveraging the IWRMP process, each region could award points to help fund projects that involve locally-appropriate stewardship practices. It would be a strategic approach that uses practices that we know work on-the-ground. There is no shortage of solutions; but there can be a shortage of cooperation and imagination to envision how the future could be different from the past.

That is what is so powerful about a group like the Roundtable, which brought a diverse set of individuals together to imagine a better future for water in California. These are the types of interactions that can move water policy forward, which as was seen clearly at the most recent State Water Resources Control Board workshop where the Roundtable’s recommendations were cited repeatedly. Of perhaps equal importance, Board members commented on how refreshing it was to see the workshop participants, who came from many different perspectives, chatting during lunch and treating each other with respect. The Roundtable has shown how structured conversations that focus on solutions can create unlikely coalitions. This is what we need more of in California.

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christian_smith.jpgDr. Juliet Christian-Smith


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