By Tim Johnson, California Rice Commission President & CEO
It’s not often that a report on water use in agriculture gets it right. I can't remember a report that ever got it right twice. The recent report “Agricultural Water Use in California - A 2011 Update” by the Center for Irrigation Technology at CSU Fresno sets the standard for an unbiased, honest look at water use in agriculture.
First, the report correctly states that water is used very efficiently in California agriculture. We know that in rice water use efficiency has increased by some 30 percent in the last decades. Rice farmers have developed shorter-stature varieties, shifted production to heavy clay soils and precisely level their fields prior to planting. These steps help them maximize efficiency and get “more grain for every drop.”
Second, the report notes the often overlooked and significant impacts of crop shifting based on the amount of water used. The report correctly characterizes this impact in rice, "Also, one of the fields in this example is rice. Irrigated rice fields have been proven to provide much needed waterfowl habitat. If this crop was shifted to one with less seasonal ETc and/or no standing water in order to leave more water in the river, this habitat would be reduced or lost altogether".
Stated simply, ducks don't live in wine grape vineyards or almond orchards. They are very prevalent in Sacramento Valley rice fields.
These findings aside, many won't like them - especially those who continue to labor under an incorrect view that some crops are more valuable than others. Unfortunately, rice is often used as a poster child for high water use and low value.
Often lost is the honest assessment that a crop, like rice, perfectly suited for the heavy clay soils where it's grown, in flooded fields is intimately connected with the environment where it is grown. Rice provides an invaluable contribution to millions of ducks and geese that winter in the Sacramento Valley each year. Take rice away and the whole ecosystem suffers - small rural communities, salmon in the flowing rivers in the Sacramento Valley and 230 species of wildlife from reptiles to raptors.
Looking at value at this level, an ecosystem level, tells a much truer picture of how well water is used in ricelands and all of agriculture.