Dr. Glenda Humiston shares her vision for how California can generate additional water and have a thriving agricultural economy at the same time
In April, leaders and scholars from the agricultural, urban and environmental communities came together to discuss policy issues impacting California’s water at the California Water Policy Conference. The conference, now in its was the vision of environmentalist Dorothy Green, and remains part of her lasting legacy as an established forum that draws participants from around the state.
Dr. Glenda Humiston began by saying she would be offering some thoughts and visions on solutions. “It’s real easy to identify the problems,” she said. “We all know we have some big challenges around water. There are a lot of different users. Every one of them has increasing demands, and the politics and the rhetoric sometimes gets pretty heated. And in the middle of all of that, there’s just that tiny sliver of water that we’re really working with. When we look at the whole planet, there is just a tiny little sliver that we’re working with out on the landscape. With climate change, water insecurity is getting even more questionable. There’s a drought somewhere all the time. It moves around, it might be here, it might be in Africa, it might be in New England, who knows – it moves around.”
“Recently, we’ve put together indices about water insecurity which is what you see on the map here. I really like what the Energy Commission did where they are trying to actually combine information about climate vulnerability, crop vulnerability, land use, and socio-economic vulnerability, and see where those interact to find the hot spots that we’ve really got to start targeting some attention to. It’s a great way to help allocate very finite resources as we’re trying to work on this.”
Dr. Humiston said that this is the kind of thing that the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California does their best to help with. “For those of you who aren’t familiar with us, we’re the land grant portion of the University of California,” she said. “We work with all ten campuses but predominantly, the ones I oversee are the four colleges on the three main campuses, Berkeley, Davis, and Riverside. Plus we have folks in every single county – the Cooperative Extension, and some of my favorite things, such as the 4H, Master Gardener’s, … we also have research extension centers scattered all over the state, nine of them that range in size from a few hundred to several thousand acres where on the ground research is being conducted all the time. We have our statewide programs and institutes. … we partner with the CSU system, private sector collaborators, and just a host of partners on a variety of research projects, not just rural. Quite a bit of it is in urban, and it’s regional urban rural connectivity type projects as well, so I urge you to take a look at the website at http://ciwr.ucanr.edu/ .”
“One of the things that is helping us nowadays find solutions to some of these issues are new tools,” Dr. Humiston said. “The ability to do remote sensing and very finite measurements and then put that into computer software ago and start seeing how they interact and solutions with that – it takes amounts of data we couldn’t have even imagined five or ten years ago. It’s really crucial for us to be able to do this, but as you know, information alone isn’t the only answer. We’ve got to start looking at sectors to see how they interact.”
“One of the sectors that I am working on is our working landscapes,” she said, explaining that the genesis for the workgroup came at the end of the very first state economic summit in 2012 in San Jose. “I attended that summit, and at the end of the day, you would have thought the economy of California was based upon an asteroid in outer space. They had a beautiful pie chart of the state’s economy, and it was the standard retail, wholesale, transportation, technology, entertainment – nowhere was there any indication that we had any natural resources doing anything at all in this state. It drove me and several other people quite crazy, so we went out the next year and really lobbied hard to the regional forums for the state summit to charter officially a Working Landscapes Action Team, and we did get that.”
[pullquote]“ … Every time I see or hear somebody say, ‘ag is only 2% of the GDP of the state, why should we even care about them?’ I think, what an unbelievably stupid statement … It’s your food source.” –Dr. Glenda Humiston[/pullquote]
The workgroup then went to the California Centers for Excellence at the community college network and commissioned them to do a study of the effect of working landscapes on the state’s economy. “This is important, because without numbers like this, the economic development people, the finance people, and way too many of legislators and policy makers, they just don’t think about it, it’s just not their big deal – unless you can show them what’s in it for them,” said Dr. Humiston.
“Every time I see or hear somebody say, ‘ag is only 2% of the GDP of the state, why should we even care about them?’ I think, what an unbelievably stupid statement,” she said. “Do you folks know what GDP is? There is a higher GDP value to have a funeral than a wedding, because a funeral probably meant somebody was in the hospital, spending a lot of health care dollars, and heaven forbid if it was shooting, someone’s buying guns and bullets – it’s transactional costs. People traveling in, flying in on airplanes for that funeral, so yeah that’s what GDP is. It’s a measure of transactions going on, and yes, the farmgate value of agriculture, just the raw product in this state, is give or take $50 billion – about 2% of the state’s GDP.”
“It’s your food source,” she emphasized. “Not to mention the fact that all those millions of acres are also involved in ecosystem services and a host of other activities, which unfortunately we don’t value very often.”
So they asked the researchers to really look at what was truly the transactions taking place related to working landscapes. “There was $318 billion dollars in 2012, and I can tell you they woefully undercounted recreation – they hardly counted it at all. You put even a moderate multiplier on that and you’re looking at a big chunk of the state’s economy, at least a third probably. That’s the kind of thing that makes a difference with policy makers when we’re going to them and saying, hey we need investments in our watersheds and our upper forests and every place else in our natural ecosystem.”
The Working Landscapes Action Team is one of seven action teams. “These last couple years, every single one of these action teams has been wanting to work with the Working Landscapes Action Team as they really see the urban-rural connection and that we’re all in this together and that we’ve got to start thinking regionally and watershed and bioregion and larger efforts to try to get solutions.”[pullquote]“The only reason agriculture exists is to grow food so people can live in cities. Agriculture water is urban water, and we need to start looking at it that way. We need to be tying it into environmental needs and industrial needs in a comprehensive, holistic way.” –Dr. Glenda Humiston[/pullquote]
At the 2015 California Economic Summit in Ontario, this led to a ‘Road Map to Prosperity’ where the leadership and the partners in the summit decided to go after three big goals: One million more skilled workers; one million new homes; and one million more acre-feet of water a year for the next ten years. “Huge, big, hairy, audacious goals, but we’re working on it,” she said. “These are stakeholders that you typically don’t see paying attention to these issues and that’s why I think it’s important. We have to get the economic development, finance, urban, local elected officials, and state legislators – we have to get them interested in this issue in a way that they never have been before. And one of the ways I think we can do that is to start showing them what’s in it for them and what’s in it for the economy moving forward.”
“Corny Gallagher who serves on the California Roundtable for Water and Food Supply, said, ‘Water in California is like the global financial crisis; it’s all connected and you just can’t ignore those connections.’ If you do it’s to your peril, and it gets more challenging as you move forward, and that’s one of the reasons we started the California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply.”
The California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply is a diverse group of stakeholders that is working together to find solutions. “We have one cardinal rule. What happens at the roundtable, stays in the roundtable, because when we get in the room and shut the doors, we want to be able to have some pretty frank and open conversations and not worry about being tweeted or quoted outside the room. That’s important for us to be able to build the relationships and really dig into to some thorny questions that might be a little uncomfortable for folks.”
“We’ve had some really great success because right off the bat, we also agreed that you’ve got to understand things before you can come to conclusions, and then once you start coming to conclusions, then you can start focusing on how do we get there? What are the recommendations, and then last but very much not least, action. Let’s actually do something about it.”
Out of the process, the roundtable has developed four different reports; they are only 12 to 20 pages, and written in plain English. “They really are very thoughtfully prepared, despite how simple they look, months of effort and a lot of debate went into them,” she said.
The first report produced by the roundtable was Ag Water Stewardship: Recommendations to Optimize Outcomes for Specialty Crop Growers and the Public in California. “It’s about conservation, and trying to improve how agricultural water stewardship is handled moving forward, with better knowledge, better tools, and new mechanisms,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of success with that. The advances in water efficiency for agriculture the last few decades have been nothing short of phenomenal. Moving to drip irrigation is the obvious thing, but it’s way beyond that. It’s tiny little soil sensors connected to solar panels that are feeding into wifi, telling computers that tree needs ten drops and that tree only needs two drops of water. It’s including things like satellite imagery and now drones … You fly that little drone around the field and you can see where disease and pests and drought and water not getting there in a very pinpointed way, and you deal with that little tiny area; you don’t deal with the whole field. It saves time, it saves energy, and it saves resources.”
Dr. Humiston noted that new software is being developed, including a software program developed by UCANR that helps farmers better manage their cropping production activities by reducing nitrogen as much as 40% and reducing water as much as 48% with no loss of yield or productivity. “That’s the kind of tool that’s really going to help move us forward going into the future,” she said. “It’s just not in the field either. Here on the campus just across the street over there at the Mondavi Center, they’ve been doing research the last three or four years, looking to see how we can radically cut down on water use in food processing, using water as much as ten times before it’s let go. Their goal is net zero water and they are getting really, really close; it’s not that far off. Once we have these techniques perfected and scaled up, and we can start implementing them throughout the entire farm to fork chain, this is going to be a huge contribution to water conservation and water management.”
“There are a lot of ways to improve how groundwater recharges, percolation, keeping snow in the mountains longer, etc,” she said. “Based off this, we used information such as this research, which was a joint effort of the Sierra Nevada Environmental Institute, UC Merced, Berkeley, and a couple of our ANR Cooperative Extensions specialists, looking at the snowpack in the mountains. They found that if we could help make those upper forested watersheds healthier, we could be producing 9-16% more water in many of them. When you consider that the Sierra and the Cascade produce 60% of the water the state uses, this is a huge opportunity.”
Most of the activities that would help harvest the water would also improve wildlife habitat, reduce fire risk, and provide better recreational opportunities. “How could you not like this? And yet, when the water bond went on a year or so ago, less than one half of one percent of the entire water bond went to these types of activities. It’s very frustrating.”
It’s not just policy, it’s not just science; it gets back to economics, Ms. Humiston said. UCANR is hoping to purchase a biomass facility in the northern Sierra as they are interested in creating a brand new research extension center focused on biobased products. “Because one of the only ways we’re going to start getting that stuff that isn’t timber quality out of those forests where it doesn’t belong is we have to find very high value uses for that biomass. Things like bioplastics and cellulostic nanofibers which already are already in proof of concept.”
“Our soldiers in Afghanistan for the last two years have been sleeping in tents lined with Kevlar type material made from biomass; it stops a bullet,” she said. “There’s a proof of concept facility in Yreka right now looking at the potential to produce Kevlar. I’m particularly excited about things like cement products. You add these cellulostic nanofibers to anything, it makes it stronger and lighter. Think about that lighter for a second – just the transportation savings alone. Better engineering, architecture.”
“But to get there, as we try to do this upper forestshed work, as well as watershed work in general, we’re going to have to get pretty creative on how we fund this. The economics of biomass value is probably not going to do it anytime real soon, and who knows it could be quite a ways off, but it will help eventually. We’re going to have to start being smarter about how we use cap and trade funds, and we have to try and find some very creative ways to monetize that reclaimed water from the upper forest watershed health work, basically just to help make that work happen.”
“One of the things that drives me crazy is hearing this thing about urban water and ag water,” she said. “The only reason agriculture exists is to grow food so people can live in cities. Agriculture water is urban water, and we need to start looking at it that way. We need to be tying it into environmental needs and industrial needs in a comprehensive, holistic way. Things like the benefits of certain projects, really if that project is going to get us more bang for the buck than that one, why don’t we go do that one first. Maybe that one is more politically viable or more photogenic, but that’s not what we should be considering. Avoiding unintended consequences.”
A great example is the work that the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority is doing with its Forest First collaborative. “From the top of the headwaters down to the ocean, they are really partnering well with the forest service; Celeste Cantu and her folks are doing some amazing work down there,” she said. “It’s part of this idea of ag, urban, and environmental interests starting to see how they actually interact with each other, and thinking about it in a connective way around ecosystems and all that is involved in the ecosystem.”
“We really tried to take that connective thinking of how the upper and lower watershed connect, how the surface and groundwater connects, the governance structures, the tools, and then getting the public and various stakeholders much more engaged,” she said. “The Kings Basin has been doing some of the best work out there in trying to really find quality ways to do groundwater management and tie it into their upper watershed. It’s really worth taking a look at what they’ve done. As you can imagine, down in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, it was no easy feat for them to take on groundwater, especially to the degree they did and they really are to be commended for it.”
“It’s thinking about how do we change how we look at the systems, and the biggest question of all – can we use that to improve our implementation of policy,” she said. “We started mapping out how our recommendations interacted with the recommendations in the California Water Action Plan, and how did it fit geospatially, and then how did it fit on timescales. There are ten really good recommendations in the California Water Action Plan. What we found is that our recommendations from the round table really fit well augmented this in many cases, and gave us an opportunity to move forward.”
This gets back to the goal of 1 million acre-feet of water each year, she said. “If we can start bringing together all the things I’ve just shared with you – new technology, new ways of managing water, ways to put upper and lower watersheds working together, surface and groundwater, better data, better mapping, and a host of other issues, we’re going to be able to find some solutions.”
There are currently three working groups working on the goal of 1 million acre-feet of water each year, and they are collaborating with the roundtable, the governor’s office, the state agencies, and any other partner out there that wants to work with us, she said.
“One of our groups is looking at ecosystem services – what are they, how do we get the public to understand their importance, how do we start valuing them, and then the biggest question of all, how do we start getting some compensation to the people who have the go/no- go say over whether or not we keep these ecosystem services,” she said. “Our co-chairs, Dr. Stephanie Larsen from the UC Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County and Adam Livingston from Sequoia Lands Living Trusts down in Tulare County are organizing a meeting to pull together all the folks in the state that are working on ecosystem services – the academics, the California Department of Food and Ag, several others in the private sector, to get them together, have them start leveraging each other, quit duplicating efforts, and really target some research dollars to them to start getting some answers to this.”
The second workgroup is looking at mapping and decision analysis. “How can we make good policy decisions if we don’t have good information? I don’t just mean numbers in a flow chart, I mean really understanding the spatial things going on. One of the things we’re working with very closely is the rural urban connection strategy in the six county Sacramento region.”
“Several years ago, they turned the whole idea of regional planning upside down. Instead of focusing on just the cities with everything rural being one shade of green, they decided to go out and get high resolution, detailed information on every single parcel in those six counties, and then tie it together via software into return on investment and water and transportation and labor and housing. They are really able now to look at if a farmer is shifting from one crop to another, what that does to water demand. If you’re going from alfalfa to prunes, it might actually reduce the demand, but if you’ve put trees in, you’ve hardened that demand. But if you go to prunes, you’re going to need more labor. Where’s that labor going to live, what are the transportation needs you’re going to have. That’s what this system already does.”
The third group workgroup is looking at groundwater specifically as well as water in general, and the current state work on groundwater management associations and how those are happening, she said.
“So to close, it’s all about the synergy,” she said. “It’s about getting the different partners respecting each other, providing information, hearing each other, having places such as the roundtable where we can close the doors and have those frank conversations that aren’t so easy to do out in the public. Having the data, the mapping, the analysis, the technology, the tools, the research, the finance, having the money invested where it needs to go. If we can pull these partners together, if we can communicate, if we can take advantage of our infrastructure and our financial ability – there are parts of California that are pretty poor but the state as a whole, we’re a pretty darn rich state – and our knowledge and our people and our resources, there’s no reason we can’t solve these challenges and actually have at the end of ten years, ten million more acre-feet of water available to the state for our use. I look forward to working with you folks as we move into that next part of the process.”
Questions and answers
Question: I really appreciated your observation about the gross distortion of the GDP concept … putting that 2 percent of the state’s economy into a different context, and for somebody like me speaking as a private citizen, that fact that we throw so much water at alfalfa in this state, for example, just grates on me. I love cheese, yogurt, and ice cream, don’t get me wrong, but it seems that there’s a problem, there’s a market distortion there … we’re not supposed to tell farmers what to grow, but the fact that we have the mosaic of crops that we do seems really out of balance to me. Is there any way that you think makes sense to address that from your position?
“That is a thorny question and it’s one of the ones that again you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. And you have to have at least some minimal belief that trade is a good thing, and I do. I like my coffee in the morning and we don’t grow it in California, or at least not yet … But the reality is, what happened with hay and alfalfa about a decade ago and the reason why that started going overseas was because we had a lot of empty shipping containers going back to China, because China keeps sending us these things such as cellphones, VCRs, little electronic toys, and all that kind of stuff. They were shipping that to us and they got tired of empty containers coming back, and the thing that seemed to make sense to fill them up with hay and alfalfa because we weren’t producing anything else to put in there. I would argue with you I’m not totally sure that’s a problem. Have you ever thought about how much water goes into producing these things such as cellphones? My understanding is, and I don’t have the numbers I’ve asked folks for them, but I’ve been told this by folks I tend to trust, if you really do a full cost accounting of water incoming and outgoing, California is a net importer of water. We need to think about that, because we are part of the global food supply.”
“We’re supplying a lot of food, not just nationally and globally, but it’s important for us ecosystem and climate resiliency wise. If we’re not growing crops here, where are those crops are going to be grown? I don’t think any of us think we need to be cutting down more rainforest in the Amazon, the lungs of our planet – that’s not a good idea. We’ve got desertification happening in many other parts of the world. If you really look at the landmass of the planet that is capable of cultivation with good climate and some access to water, there’s not a whole heck of a lot of land that meets that classification, and frankly right now when we’re looking to try to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we have to start protecting our farmland, and I mean every single bit of it. Granted, there’s a lot of other stuff we need to do too, 30-40% of our food supply gets wasted, sometimes in the field, sometimes in the farm to fork, a lot of times just in our own kitchens. I know I’m a little appalled at what I put into my compost each week, all of us do, but again it’s part of that overall cost accounting. We’ve really got to start thinking about it and calculating what it means to us. If we were to try to do this manufacturing back here, that’s going to be sucking up a lot of water, not to mention a lot of other issues, so I don’t know if that’s a good answer for you, but it’s typical of the fact that there’s no easy answer, which is usually the truth.”