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Joe Guzzardi: Will limited water resources kill California agriculture?

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Posted: Saturday, March 1, 2014 12:00 am

This week, two News-Sentinel headlines caught my attention. The first story addressed what steps some Lodians are taking to preserve precious water. One of the most popular methods — and a step in the right direction — is to replace natural grass lawns with artificial turf. Because of technological advances, new turf is more similar to real grass than the old Astro-Turf used three decades ago at indoor baseball stadiums.

Concerned families are also taking shorter showers and reusing wash water in the garden.

While that’s all well and good, the developments outlined in the second story will more than offset individual conservation measures.

On Wednesday, the Lodi Planning Commission approved by a unanimous 4-0 vote further development at Reynolds Ranch.

The initial concept is to split the large parcels of the 27-acre development into 25 smaller parcels that will eventually create 78,000 square feet of commercial space. The new businesses will include a McDonald’s, a sit-down restaurant and a car wash, all significant water users. Other businesses, although less water intensive, are also users: a drive-up bank, a tire store and other retail outlets, and two supermarket-style firms.

One thing is certain. Lodians and other Californians can’t have it both ways. Business expansion and home development projects are inconsistent with natural resource conservation, especially water. And it’s unfair to residents to expect them to conserve and/or pay higher water rates while business interests push ahead.

The Environmental Protection Agency found that 10 of the 15 fastest-growing metropolitan areas are in arid California and other western states like Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. Unfortunately, the West also has the nation’s highest per capita residential water use. Many areas like Lodi are facing rapid population growth and increasing development pressure, which contribute to the mounting difficulty of providing adequate water supply to their residents.

Gov. Jerry Brown has urged a 20 percent voluntary reduction in water usage, a goal that should be achievable but may not be enough — assuming, as anticipated, the drought persists.

The typical California single-family home uses an average of more than 360 gallons of water daily with the range falling between Palm Springs’ 720 and San Francisco’s 175 gallons. To meet Brown’s standards, residents would have to use 72 fewer gallons a day, a task that is not daunting. For example, fixing leaking faucets can save 140 gallons a week.

But what to do about agriculture? California grows more than 98 percent of the nation’s pistachio crop, 95 percent of broccoli, 92 percent of strawberries, 91 percent of grapes and 90 percent of lettuce and tomatoes. Those crops are produced in regions that range from, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought.” The California Department of Food and Agriculture published these statistics about how much water it takes to grow these crops: one head of broccoli, 5.4 gallons; a single tomato, 3.3 gallons. Other major California crops like lettuce and walnuts use 3.5 and 4.9 gallons respectively.

Agriculture’s heavy reliance on increasingly scarce water prompted Jay Lund, a water expert at the University of California, Davis, to predict the unthinkable. Lund foresees that water shortages may mean that agriculture will soon play a diminished role in California’s economy, forcing the agriculture business to the South and the Midwest, where water is less expensive.

As hard as it is to imagine a California without abundant agricultural riches, that day may be soon approaching.

Joe Guzzardi taught in the Lodi Unified School District from 1987 to 2008. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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