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Farming the Desert

Earlier this spring, a group of students from the Stanford Graduate School of Business took a trip through California and Nevada. Their mission: to investigate water. The trip began in Sacramento with a tour of the Delta, following the flow of water south. The group visited agricultural communities in the San Joaquin Valley, then continued down to Los Angeles and Orange County, to learn more about urban water use and corporate water management—finally examining Nevada's water use through the lens of Las Vegas.

Along the way, the group met with policymakers, corporate executives, nonprofit leaders, water managers, and farmers. Students investigated ecosystem protection, water economics and markets, wastewater treatment and recycling, water infrastructure, the water-energy nexus, water quality issues, corporate water footprinting, and climate change, to name but a few.

Here is the second installment of what they found.

The cost of water in California's Central Valley varies between $7 and $300 an acre-foot (defined as the volume of one acre of surface area to a depth of one foot, or 43,560 cubic feet), depending on drought conditions and location. That's quite a volatile price for a key agricultural resource. With 11 inches of rainfall, the southern end of the Central Valley is just two inches above the amount of rainfall that defines a desert. Who would want to farm under those conditions?

We met a community of farmers who developed the expertise to do so, created a livelihood out of it, and are ready to fight for the right to keep farming the desert. Central Valley natives and second-generation immigrants, all with a college education and an entrepreneurial spirit, saw their opportunity in the sixties when the California State Water Project provided 40-year guaranteed water supply contracts to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Primary features of the project include the Oroville Dam, San Luis Reservoir, and the California Aqueduct, which we crossed several times during our journey.

The SWP's purpose is to move water from the northern part of the state where it's most abundant, past the Sacramento River delta and into the Central Valley and southern California. With water delivered to their otherwise dry land, farmer Joe and many others soon found themselves feeding the state of California and beyond, with up to 70 percent of some crops shipped oversees. Today California is divided into three regions: the sink in the north, the kitchen in the center, and the dorm room, with the largest concentration of people, in the south.

In 1992, however, environmental concerns came into the picture. Scientists and environmentalists claimed that the pumping in the Sacramento River delta stressed certain species of endangered fish. Since then, pumping restrictions were enforced to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Do we know for sure what's causing the Delta smelt to decline? As we learned by attending the hearings at the State Water Resource Control Board yesterday, scientists can't agree whether there is "scientific uncertainty" around the issue. Despite all the monitoring activity in the Delta mandated by law, little if no analysis of the vast amount of data collected has taken place. The fish-counting facility we visited yesterday sure made all of its data public but years of biological trends are waiting to be decoded and correlated with environmental factors while politicians are contemplating making important decisions with little or no scientific information.

Central Valley farmers saw their water supply cut to 60 percent of its original level, causing a rise in unemployment rates. Last year, after several consecutive dry years, California's available surface water was only 60 percent of the amount of an average year. In 2009, after several consecutive dry years, California's available surface water was only 60percent of the amount of the average year. The Central Valley's water allotment dropped drastically to a low 10 percent of the original contract level in a context of general economic depression months into the global financial crisis.

The solution is not so simple. While some advocate for a peripheral canal to route the Sacramento River's water around the Delta, which should leave the fish undisturbed, others suggest digging a tunnel underneath the Delta. That solution would certainly bring water to farmers and southern Californians, but how is the Delta going to return to its natural state if the last large amount of fresh water flowing into it doesn't do so anymore?

Some say we shouldn't be farming the desert, but if that's the case, where does our food come from? In November of last year, the California state legislature passed a water package, which included bills and a bond proposal designed to ensure a reliable and clean water supply to restore the Delta. Although perspectives on the package vary, we've yet to find constituents who are satisfied with it.

Meanwhile, in the Central Valley, this environmental/agricultural tug on California's precious water translates into perceptions by the farm workers, who are suffering through the drought without a job, that they are less important than the fish in the Delta.

As stress on water increases around the world, other countries are looking at how California is going about solving its water crisis. There's definitely a lot to be learned.

Robyn Beavers became a pioneer in the cleantech and renewable energy movement eight years ago while at Stanford University, where she organized a campus-wide credited seminar on clean technologies. Robyn is now completing her studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where she is a candidate for a 2010 MBA.

Bernadette Clavier is the Associate Director of the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. In her spare time she created an organic food program for Bay Area schools, trains as a disaster first respondent, and advocates for autism spectrum disorders awareness.

A version of this post appeared at Stanford Graduate School of Business' Center for Social Innovation.

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