Dr. Michael Shires on How Water Policy Leaves CA Vulnerable | The Orange County Register
OPINION: Water Policy Leaves California Vulnerable
Water is the Central Valley’s economic lifeblood — of that, there is no doubt. The drought of the last five years has put tremendous pressure on the state’s water allocation systems and shown that they are not only broken but incapable of adapting to the realities of a sustained drought cycle. But, why should people in Southern California and Orange County care if water is not available to the Central Valley and agricultural production goes away?
Four simple reasons — there will be less fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in California, many Central Valley residents will lose their jobs and be forced to move to other areas of the state, other areas of the state will have to absorb the fiscal impact of an economically depressed Central Valley, and a substantial amount of Southern California’s imported water comes from Northern California.
Orange County, like the rest of the state, is reliant on an ancient infrastructure, inadequate storage and bureaucratic arbitrariness which are the hallmarks of a California water system that was built for half the population the state supports today. Layer on top of that the absence of any real planning for a sustained drought and you have the recipe for the last five disastrous years of drought.
Fallowed farmland, empty processing plants, browning trees, unemployed workers — all the result of this vacuum. Recent work completed about the drought’s impact on the Fresno and Kings County economies show that if the state’s water system had delivered on its contracted levels, local agricultural employment and economic production could have been as much as 20 percent higher than it is today.
The drought also brought to the forefront individuals who call for less agriculture in the region. But less agriculture in the Central Valley means significantly fewer fresh products make their way to Southern California. On the surface, you might think, “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that farmers in the Westlands Water District, the most productive farming region of the world, grow a considerable share of the state’s melons, lettuce, onions, corn, tomatoes, pistachios and almonds, to name a few key crops. The ability of these farmers to produce healthy, California-grown food is the strength of the Central Valley that benefits families living throughout the state.
And, it turns out, almost 100,000 workers in Fresno and Kings counties alone are dependent on agriculture — more than 1 in 5 jobs in the two counties. Plus, their families and a host of community and public organizations also depend on them for their support.
The response of some to this reality is that the state could easily replace these jobs with manufacturing jobs and new green jobs as the state implements its aggressive environmental goals. Yet the reality is different. Estimates of the impacts of green jobs throughout the entire San Joaquin Valley total less than 9,000 a year.
Even if all the farmland was converted to solar farms, solar operations would have to spend $6.24 billion a year to replace agriculture in the region’s economy. Others point to manufacturing — a sector in which the state has been hemorrhaging jobs for decades. The Fresno region has been holding steady in this sector, but only because food manufacturing, which accounts for more than half the county’s manufacturing jobs, has been growing to offset losses in durable goods manufacturing. The sector would have to more than quadruple its manufacturing employment to offset agriculture.
Of course, this assumes manufacturers are interested in investing in the Central Valley region. The reality is that recent trends to on-shore manufacturing in America prove other states to be far more appealing. In other words, manufacturing companies prefer places with less regulation, friendlier tax codes, workforces who have had the opportunity to become college educated — not a state which has been doubling down on raising the cost of doing business within its boundaries.
The stakes are too high — dismantling the state’s agriculture economy in the Central Valley would not only make America dependent on foreign producers not subject to worker, environmental and food safety regulations, but would disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of Californians and their local communities.
Economic modeling also shows that not only would the Central Valley lose tens of thousands of jobs and billions in income without agriculture, but the state and local governments would lose almost half a billion dollars a year in tax revenues at the very time that the surge in unemployment in some of the state’s poorest counties would drive even more residents onto the social safety net.
The bottom line — in one of the nation’s richest agricultural areas, which successfully employs one of the largest entry-level worker populations in the nation and which provides them with paths to economic opportunity — is that agriculture is impossible to replace. And we shouldn’t want to.
These are not options — they are reality. If we don’t change, California may indeed reverse the Dustbowl of the 1930’s and export its population eastward to places where new opportunities exist. The responsibility is on us to ensure California remains the vibrant state known as the agricultural powerhouse that feeds our nation and many parts of the world.
Michael Shires is a professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.