Farm Progress

Making the California water crisis a people issueMaking the California water crisis a people issue

Harry Cline 1

November 3, 2008

7 Min Read

You almost need binoculars driving up Pacheco Pass on Highway 152 to find the water now puddled in San Luis Reservoir north of Los Banos, Calif.

The lake in the foothills on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley can hold 2.1 million acre feet of water. It now holds just over 200,000 acre feet of water — stark visual testimony to the current California water crisis.

One person negotiating the winding highway to the annual Western Plant Health Association conference this year in Monterey, Calif., was craning so hard to catch a glimpse of water in the lake he almost ran off the road.

The major storage lake for both the federal and state water projects is historically low this time of year. However, it has been years since it has been as low as it is now. Water contractors are starting to refill it from dams in Northern California. However, it is so low some believe it will not refill this season because of demand for water from it next summer and the lack of refill water flowing from the north.

As dramatic an example the San Luis Reservoir is that California is in the throes of the major drought, the issue must become a people issue rather than a lake or ag water issue before political movement can be made toward a solution, according to Sacramento, Calif., agricultural lobbyist and Hanford, Calif., dairyman George Soares.

Most agree it will take a multi-billion dollar bond issue to pay for what needs to be done to develop new water sources for the state’s 38 million people growing quickly toward 50 million.

Soares is among those who are working to make the California water crisis a people issue.

That is why there were 1,000 farm workers in Sacramento this summer trying to get the state Legislature to understand “real people benefit from water” — not the notion that water is only for rich farmers to get richer.

Soares told the WPHA annual meeting that making the water crisis a people issue is moving the decades-old water crisis closer than ever before to a solution.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but by making it a people issue we are gaining some traction.”

Resolving political issues like water has never been more challenging for agriculture, according to Soares, who has spearheaded efforts over the last decade to create a heretofore unlikely alliance between agricultural interests and urban legislators.

And with a group of agricultural commodity leaders, he has been successful, citing specifically the passage of the tractor tax repeal in 2001 that saves farmers from $150 million to $160 million a year. This compares to the Williamson Act, which protects farmland from urban taxation, and saves farmers about $40 million annually.

Soares said rural interests can agree to disagree with urban legislators on issues, and “we can still do business. Politics are situational and all about relationships,” he said. It is not about who is a Democrat and who is a Republican.

“We want to love them all, and we want them all to love us,” said Soares.

He encouraged WPHA members to communicate their messages clearly to legislators and not use industry-specific jargon most do not understand.

“I had water people come to me to talk to me about conjunctive use, CFS and other terms. I told them I had no idea what they were talking about. Legislators do not either,” he adds.

With term limits, Soares says there is a new set of rookie state legislators every two years, which only heightens the importance of clear communications on issues.

“Agriculture and politics do not mix well and that poses a challenge for us. We have to learn to cope with the system” that is controlled by urban California. Agriculture long ago lost its influence in California and now faces “challenges at every turn” to influence legislation affecting the state’s No. 1 industry.

Pesticide issue

That same industry often finds itself in the public spotlight over food safety issues. Of late that has focused on biological contaminants.

Pesticides are now a bit below the radar, according to Teresa Thorne of the Alliance for Food and Farming.

The Alliance for Food and Farming is a non-profit organization that educates and informs consumers and the media on issues of food safety and farming. It is based in Watsonville, Calif.

As part of this effort, the alliance regularly surveys consumers to understand what food issues are important to them.

An Internet survey recently conducted among 800 people by the group found a little over half — 58 percent — were concerned about pesticides.

Thorne said that makes the pesticide issue of moderate concern. However, it still makes the pesticide industry vulnerable to a pesticide residue/contamination incident like the food-borne disease issues.

However, the survey also revealed that 72 percent of the people surveyed understood the importance of eating fruits and vegetables for health reasons.

The same set of consumers also expressed a fairly good understanding of what organic food is, but could not clearly define what is called conventional farming.

Only 11 percent of those surveyed said they would buy organic food, regardless of the price. Fifty-two percent said the decision to buy organic was dependent on price.

One goal of the survey was to see what consumers felt about the radical Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) so-called “dirty dozen” list of fruits and vegetables allegedly high in pesticide residue.

Thorne said the majority surveyed did not recognize EWG’s list. That was a piece of good news from the survey. This was reinforced by responses to questions about what food products come to mind when pesticide residue issues are raised. Apples topped the list followed by spinach and leafy green vegetables. The list did not match up with the EWG’s “dirty dozen.”

This list has had a lot of publicity, but not much traction with the consumer. One reason could be that newspapers and television were ranked last as credible sources about pesticide issues in food.

Not surprisingly, scientists, dieticians and physicians ranked highest. The consumer also has confidence in what the farmer has to say about what is produced.

“Farmers are very credible with consumers,” she adds.

The message consumers respond to when they hear about or are confronted with a pesticide issue is the one that says a person has to eat 10,000 servings to ingest enough of an allowable residue on food before there is any measureable reaction.

WPHA officers

WPHA represents the crop protection and fertilizer manufacturers, biotechnology providers, and agricultural retailers in California, Arizona and Hawaii.

Its new chairman is Barry Powell of CALAMCO, Stockton, Calif. Michael Donnelly of Dow AgroSciences was named vice chairman; and Barbara LeVake of Trical, Inc., in Hollister became secretary/treasurer. Steve Gillette of Potash Corp., and J.R. Abele of Chemtura Corp., in Fresno were selected as executive committee members. “My goal is to continue to support the vibrant and progressive agricultural industry in the West which helps feed the world’s growing population,” Powell said after his election to chairman.

During the meeting, the following individuals were newly elected to three-year terms on the WPHA board of directors: Larry Wanken of BASF, John Smith of Bayer CropSciences, and Jim Tuttle of Monterey Ag Resources representing crop protection manufacturers/formulators; Rex Harke of Agrium, US, representing fertilizer manufacturers; and representing the agricultural retailer segment of the industry were Joe Burdullis of Ag Rx, Joe Inglima of Mid Valley Ag Services, and Scott Hushbeck of Wilbur-Ellis Co.

Each year at its annual meeting WPHA presents awards to those members who demonstrated outstanding service to the industry. This year’s Integrity Award went to Chris Moudry of Basin Fertilizer & Chemical Co., and the group’s Lifetime Achievement Award was bestowed upon Gordon Miller of Western Farm Service.

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