Agriculture is of great economic value in Merced County. With average age of 29, six years younger than the state average, there just aren't many people in the county who remember when there was a large population of small farmers, less than half the total population of today, and harvesting was a community event with help from migrants. Today, farmers are few, the only survivors were the beloved of their bankers, and farm labor was criminalized in the mid-Sixties.
One reads a number-slinging editorial like the one below us and tries to decipher the figures and the argument. We know there are many people who know that water is essential not only to their urban lifestyle but to the irrigated agriculture that surrounds their towns and cities. It was driven into their minds with great financial violence starting in 2007 that real estate (the so-called "new" economy) wasn't going to replace agriculture (called the "old economy" particularly by proponents of UC Merced, that great big "high-tech, bio-tech engine of growth"). But they don't know much about agriculture and less about water, which is in short supply lately due to drought. Farming is complicated and in our era of mono-cropping, farmers of one commodity rarely know much about any others.
Fewer of us are old enough or have lived in California long enough to know that droughts happen here. Less are well enough versed in global warming science to realize that this drought is probably a harbinger of worse to come. And apparently, at least if the newspapers and TV news are to be believed, one has to be on the radical fringe to seriously consider that California population and agriculture have both grown well beyond the carrying capacity of California natural resources. Beyond that consideration, very few venture because it is hard to imagine any good news in the answer to the question: Why is California destroying itself? It is not the California Way to accept an answer that is not good news. Just listen to our ebullient, 77-year-old governor selling his water visions!
And we do mean selling. Visions.
Below you will find references to farm income but there are other sources beside profits and property value: proven ground water, the 2014 Farm Bill, federally subsidized crop insurance, state milk prices, price and production swings, tax write offs, the Williamson Act, disaster payments and other supports for specific agricultural industries like dairy, cotton and rice. Very little of this is going to appear on any balance sheet as "profit" but it is the bread and butter of farm income, even more so in a drought.
Below is just a little boldface dialogue with some McClatchy editors.
Our View: We must challenge state’s water grab
We all know Mark Twain’s three kinds of untruths: Lies, damned lies and statistics.
But the one we know best, about water, is something he may never have said: "Whisky's for drinking; water's for fighting."
The State Water Resources Control Board is telling some statistical whoppers as it tries to justify its impending water grab.
Where do these whoppers appear? The water control board is developing a plan, but where are the details published? Or are these figures being leaked to the press from a smoky room or bootlegged out by representatives of the irrigation districts of the "tributary rivers."
The state’s statisticians and computers created their numbers. But we’ll stick to the back of an envelope. See which numbers you find more plausible.
Start with this: $1.01 billion. That could come out of our pockets.
According to the McClatchyCo envelope.
Some background. Two years ago, a water board study proposed four scenarios for increasing the “unimpaired flows” on the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Many disputed those numbers, so the board has promised an update expected in March. By November, many feel the board will make its demands for more water to be sent down our rivers.
Actually, they aren't our rivers. They are sometimes called "the tributary rivers" because they are tributaries of the San Joaquin River, according the American Rivers, the most endangered river in America. But rivers come under federal and state jurisdiction and the rights irrigation and water districts enjoy to portions of their water are use rights, not ownership rights.
The state will tell us that taking the water is for our own good. They’ll say decreasing what we use and increasing the amount that flows to the Delta and beyond will make our rivers healthier, save the salmon (which have all but disappeared) and make the Delta less salty.
But the state will likely ignore the part about devastating our economy. So we’ll remind them of the four scenarios they offered in 2012:
▪ Do nothing, leaving flows where they are – roughly 20 percent on the Merced, 30 percent on the Stanislaus and 17 percent on the Tuolumne, which all leaves the area.
▪ Increase unimpaired flows to 20 percent; this affects only the Tuolumne, whose unimpaired flow would increase by 25 percent.
How does an increase from 17 percent to 20 percent work out to a 25-percent increase?
Inconceivably, the state says this would add 12,280 irrigated acres in the region and increase farm profits by $9 million. Less water; more crops – that only works in a computer game.
It would sure be good to see where this is written down.
▪ Increase flows to 40 percent for all rivers, which will double what flows down the Merced. Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation would give up a third more water. The Tuolumne’s increase would be 150 percent. The state says this would fallow 66,500 acres in Stanislaus, Merced and south San Joaquin counties at a cost of $40 million. That figure is pure fantasy – putting the profit from each acre at only $600. Farmers don’t break even at $600.
Equating farm income with farm profits not accurate. And fallow land may also generate farm income.
▪ Increase flows to 60 percent, tripling the Merced’s unimpaired flows, doubling what goes down the Stanislaus and quadrupling the Tuolumne’s flows. The state says this would remove 155,720 acres from production, costing the region $124 million. That means the state figures those prime acres generate only $800 each. Hmm.
A glance at Merced County’s crop report shows the idiocy of that number. Ag commissioner David Robinson says roughly 700,000 acres were harvested in 2013, generating $3.79 billion. That works out to about $5,414 per acre – nearly seven times the state’s figure. It’s a reasonable figure. Don’t forget, all the land to be fallowed would be in Merced Irrigation District – some of the most fertile in the region.
What is it that we are supposed to remember from the foregoing that says all the losses would be in the Merced Irrigation District? We see the figure 155,720 acres fallowed as a result of increased flows in all three tributary rivers, not just the Merced. Land in Merced cannot be fallowed by increased flows in the Stanislaus.
It gets worse. The farm bureau and others dispute the impact of 40 percent flows, putting the fallowed number at 100,000 acres for the region – ranging from $6,400 to $5,400 in value. That puts losses at over $540 million.
Presumably the editorial is referring to the Merced County Farm Bureau and it introduces yet another figure for fallowed ground. But this is a countywide organization so what does "region" mean? Does it include the west side, that gets its water from the Delta? And now "profit" is replaced by "value" and we enter the morass of agricultural forensic accounting.
Don’t stop there. As farm dollars get spent, they multiply at a rate of 3.5, according to a UC Davis study. So the minimum $540 million becomes $1.9 billion.
What if the state demands 60 percent flows? Local experts say the region will fallow 210,000 acres – costing $1.4 billion at the farmgate. With the multiplier that’s a $4.8 billion hit in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
OK, we admit that’s an unlikely worst-case scenario.
In reality, farmers are inventive and resilient people. Deprived of water they won’t give up.
That's right. They dig wells and if they are real smart businessmen they sell that groundwater to other farmers, even out of their own county, for more money that they could make farming.. And they will probably do so again this year because the county hasn't yet completed a groundwater ordinance and the board of supervisors voted down a motion to put a moratorium on those sales until the ordinance is completed.
Instead, they’ll spread whatever water they get over more acres by planting crops that need less moisture. That won’t include as many almond trees. Growing nuts requires 42 inches of water a year. With the cuts, Merced Irrigation Districts figures it could lose 70,000 acre-feet of water in dry years. That’s more water than is sitting in Lake McClure today.
MID is figuring it could lose the sale of 70,000 acre-feet. That is not the same thing as the district losing that amount of water. Farmers in the district have always made up the loss of surface water by pumping.
Farmers will likely begin pulling trees so they can spread the water across more acres of less thirsty crops.
Yes, and federally subsidized crop insurance will ease their sense of loss.
But an acre of tomatoes is 54 percent less profitable than an acre of almonds. Melons are 79 percent less profitable, wheat 85 percent.
It is news to us that tomato, melon and wheat prices are pegged to the almond price.
Substituting 60,000 acres of almonds for tomatoes, melons or veggies will create losses of roughly $300 million. Add the multiplier effect and our region will have lost $1.05 billion. There are roughly 1.1 million people living in the three river basins. Each one will be $1,000 poorer. And that doesn’t count losses in hydro-power generation or the fact that 37 percent of jobs in this area are ag-related.
Here we have yet another virgin figure, 60,000 acres (out of the 100,000 currently in almonds in Merced County). But a question arises: Did each one of us, who now stands to lose "$1,000," decide to make Merced County the biggest almond county in the nation? Did each one of us vote to commit the county's economy to the international almond market and state milk pricing, any more than each of us decided to create the least affordable housing market in the nation during the real estate boom?
Whatever statistics the state, the irrigation districts and the farm bureau are slinging, this fiction of Mama McClatchy's is worse. And as the national plutocracy extracts more and more from "each one." we can sit around in a circle and make the Great Valley Whine about state water policy.
Without water, the value of the land falls, reducing taxes to pay for everything from public safety to education.
Our schools were much better and our public safer before our economy became a captive of irrigation districts feeding the Sacred Cow and the Noble Nut.
Meanwhile, the rivers that once watered our orchards and fields will be diverted to the delta pumps. The report notes $63 million for pumps to help lift all that water over the Middle River fish barriers, which would allow it to be pulled directly into the larger pumps near Tracy.
Everyone who lives here has a stake in this – farm bureaus, the five irrigation districts, jobs agencies, chambers of commerce, county supervisors, city councils.
“Under this proposal, the Valley will annually lose hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural economic activity,” said MID general manager John Sweigard. “Tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land will be fallowed in Merced County alone.”
Clearly the state’s farmer fantasy models are worthless. And we need better than back-of-envelope calculations.
UC Merced might help, or California State University, Stanislaus. Such studies aren’t cheap, but that shouldn’t deter us.
Actually, UC Davis and UC Berkeley have departments of agricultural economics that have been functioning for about a century and are perfectly capable of producing whatever kind of study anyone wants to pay for.
We need to show the devastating impacts of this water grab. We need legislators to know the state isn’t just taking water, it’s endangering our livelihoods, our homes and our futures.
If it weren't the "state water grab" it would have been hundreds of thousands of almond acres coming into production in China or international currency exchanges or this or that malevolent force out there that just hates the San Joaquin Valley. But this particular malevolent force is obstructing a new class of farmers from Wall Street, who have created a nice little boom to replace urban real estate, which is now threatened by drought.
Then, if the state won’t listen, perhaps the courts will.
Does this mean that McClatchyCo is going to unleash its lawyers on state water policies to defend us poor little people just robbed of a grand a piece?
We don't mind, in fact we expect, the highest degree of partisanship when it comes to water. It is impossible to be disinterested about it. But if McClatchyCo expects to be believed, it will have to develop a little more coherence than is evident here.