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Public Perception And Agriculture

At the recent meeting of The Society for Environmental Journalist’s panel on water and the drought, a question came from a reporter from the MidWest. “California food feeds people all over the world. Why do we depend on California to feed the world…wouldn’t it be better if every region was responsible for their own food production?” Her point was clear: doesn’t corporate farming hurt more than it helps?

In the sound bite, social media world we live in it is easy for misconceptions like this to take hold and become truth. They think: If only people would grow their own food in small backyard gardens the impacts on the environment would be so much less. This lack of understanding of our food supply system and the water that is used for that system—and food that it produces—is one of the critical issues facing the ag industry.

At a similar discussion at a panel held in Salinas by the California Humanities regarding water,  a pulitzer prize winner announced to the crowd of around 100 people that she had reduced her water consumption by taking less showers, getting rid of her lawn and if agriculture would do the same we would have no need for water storage. One of the other panelists reminded the writer that she had forgotten to mention the food that she consumed during the week as water used. This disconnect between water users and consumers is driving water policy as the state grapples with the current and future water shortages. And it is not the only misconception that we must address.

The latest talking points promoted by some environmental groups is that we don’t need to spend money on water storage but instead should fund groundwater storage projects. It sounds great just like those backyard gardens, but the reality—and limitation—of groundwater storage is much more complex. It’s kind of like sharing a cup of milk with your preschool children. Do you really know if they’re pulling something out or letting something drain back in?  Sometimes the backyard garden is a success and some years you eat tomatoes and nothing else. We should be grateful that we have a safety food net that feeds the world.

Another misconception is that we can’t have both fish and farms. And that if we choose to ignore what fish need th all of our water issues would disappear. Watersheds that work are watersheds that work for both upstream and downstream water users; for fish and farms. Finding solutions like the one that the salmon task force is working on now in Northern California—to increase spawning beds and the two decades of work that the Sacramento Valley Fish Screen Program has produced—are the types of innovative solutions that we need statewide. When we earn to care for the whole watershed then that watershed can give us both healthy fisheries and farming communities and produce a healthy watershed with more water.

Forest health is as important to farms as it is for forest communities. That is what Gifford Pinchot was thinking when he envisioned the national forest system and wrote, “The Use of the National Forests-To Keep The Water Flow Steady- The Forests here are created and maintained to protect the timber and keep it in the people’s hands for their own present and future use and to prevent the water from running off suddenly in destructive floods.”

Spending more time on forest health can give us more water for fish, families and farms. Catching more water in off stream storage projects will give us flexibility to catch water as the climate warms. We cannot solve problems we face as a state unless we work to improve understanding and communication at both ends of the watershed. We have a lot of work to do.

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