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February 20, 2014
Editorial: In record drought, state leaders can't ignore agriculture to save water

tractor.JPG(Feb. 20 - By the Editorial Board)

Securing emergency drinking water supplies for the worst-hit communities is absolutely necessary. With no end in sight to California's record drought, state leaders are right to focus most of the $687 million relief package they announced Wednesday on longer-term efforts to conserve and recycle water.

But if we're really all in this together, leaders must pay far more attention to the biggest user - agriculture, which sucks up as much as three-fourths of available water in a given year.

As The Sacramento Bee's Matt Weiser reported on Sunday, while more farmers are using drip irrigation, which is far more efficient than merely flooding fields, many are still stuck in the old ways. And while urban water systems must reduce per capita water use by 20 percent by 2020 or risk losing state money, state law does not put the agricultural sector under similar conservation requirements.

Just like urban systems, water districts in farm country should have state help - and have goals - to save as much as they can.

The new aid package - unveiled by Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez - does call for transferring $10million from carbon cap-and-trade funds to invest in more efficient agricultural irrigation and pumping systems.

In the big picture, the cliché fits - it's a drop in the bucket. To make a real difference, state leaders ought to look more critically at agriculture. Few dare to even talk about discouraging crops that use lots of water but do relatively little to boost California's economy.

Also, some environmental groups criticized the plan for leaving out hydraulic fracturing, a method of freeing underground gas and oil with high-pressure blasts of sand, chemicals and lots of water.

Of the $687 million, the vast majority - $549 million from water and flood-prevention bonds that voters authorized in 2006 - would speed up local and regional projects already in the pipeline to capture stormwater, expand water recycling, store more groundwater and strengthen conservation programs.

This money, however, should be awarded to the projects that will save the most water, even if they aren't on the drawing board yet. Competitive grants will encourage local officials to be innovative and use the most up-to-date technology to find the best methods for their communities. In high-demand regions such as Sacramento, there is huge potential water savings in outdoor landscaping.

The legislation includes $15 million to address emergency water shortages; public health officials have identified 10 communities at the highest risk of running out of drinking water in the next 60 days. There is also $46 million in state and federal money for emergency food and shelter for people out of work because fields are fallow due to the drought. These set-asides will supplement the aid that President Barack Obama announced in Fresno last week.

State leaders keep telling us that every drop of water is precious and that everyone has to pitch in. They must follow through and push for water savings all across the state and in all sectors of the economy.