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“The Central Valley Needs a New Narrative”

Ellen Hanak May 18, 2015

Dan Dooley’s expertise on the nexus between water and agriculture runs deep: fifth-generation Tulare County rancher, water lawyer, former deputy director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture,  former chair of the state Water Commission, and former member of the National Academy of Sciences’ board on agriculture. So when he says the Valley needs a new narrative on water, we’d be wise to pay attention.

I’ve had the privilege of working with Dooley during one of his most recent gigs, as head of external affairs for the University of California, and we are fortunate to have him as an inaugural member of the PPIC Water Policy Center’s Advisory Council. Recently, I held a conversation with him following his recent lecture on the future of agriculture in the Central Valley, an event hosted by the Water Education Foundation.

Dooley began by describing key drivers of change that are already affecting farming in the Central Valley—and the San Joaquin Valley, in particular—from declining groundwater and less-reliable surface water, to a fast-growing population. Add to that the various water stressors that climate change is expected to bring, and it’s clear that change is inevitable. The billion-dollar question is how best to manage these changes well.

Especially during the drought, good management has not always carried the day. He emphasized that long-term over-drafting of groundwater can’t be sustained and regretted that farmers missed their opportunity to be more involved in last year’s legislation to regulate groundwater. “The new state law on groundwater could result in a 15-20 percent contraction in agricultural water use in the Southern San Joaquin valley,” he said.

At the same time, Dooley notes, water demand has “hardened” because of conversion of row crops (which can be fallowed in dry years) to perennial crops. The growth in dairies has also had a big impact on groundwater.

Despite these major challenges, Dooley emphasized that the Valley is an incredibly productive place, teeming with innovation and able to adapt to scarce water. His main point—that the Central Valley needs a new narrative—is a positive one.

As we talked about potential solutions, a few beacons of hope stood out. First, these myriad challenges are likely to force change in some of the state’s outdated policy and regulatory approaches to water. New policies will be needed to incentivize more efficient water use, and to improve the marketing of conserved water to others with unmet demand. Second, better integration of surface and groundwater—critical to sustainable management—is inevitable in light of tight supplies and the new groundwater law. Third, the culture of innovation that has made the Valley an agricultural powerhouse can serve the region well as it adapts to water scarcity, population growth, and a changing climate.

His big-picture advice to both his fellow farmers and water-law colleagues: Get more involved in groundwater management and manage it for the long-term. Stop scapegoating the environment. Stop the skirmishing, keep your eyes on where you want to be 10 years from now, and implement practical solutions.

Learn more about the annual Anna J. Schneider lecture series and its focus on water law.

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