Thursday, April 9, 2015

State official blasts newspaper over editorial

California's top natural resources official criticized the Sacramento Bee during a water forum with other state leaders this morning, accusing the paper of putting a misleading headline on a guest editorial written by Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin.

In the column, Cowin wrote that farmers have already seen drastic water cutbacks and that a 25 percent reduction in urban water use "is less a hardship on California residents than an adjustment to a new reality."

He wrote:
Some question why the mandated water reductions did not extend to agriculture, which uses a larger share of the state’s developed water supply than homes and businesses.

Millions of acre-feet of surface water will not go to farms this year. The roughly half-million acres of farmland not planted last year (of roughly 9 million irrigated acres in the state) will likely expand this year. The state’s two biggest water projects already have cut deliveries by between 50 percent and 100 percent.

Thousands of other farmers with long-standing water rights and good supplies even in dry years are on notice from the State Water Resources Control Board that water may be left in streams and rivers to meet the most basic needs for people and native fish – and that they should think hard before planting crops in this fourth year of drought.

If this drought deepens so that it becomes difficult to provide water for essential human needs, the state ultimately could use its authority to further limit agricultural water use. But we should stretch urban supplies as far as possible before we take that drastic action.

Agriculture is the economic engine of rural California, and the entire state enjoys the variety of safe, nutritious food that California farmers produce. There are many gallons of water, applied by a farmer, behind each of our meals.

Some argue that California agriculture uses too much water to grow crops for export such as almonds and pistachios, and suggest the state ban such crops.

Where should the state draw that line? Should the state judge the worthiness of crops based on water use? Nutritional value? Profit per acre-foot of water used? Is broccoli acceptable, but not wine grapes? How do we account for the tremendous waterfowl habitat created by rice fields?
Later, he concluded:
This drought has the power to divide us, but it may also bring us together. A 25 percent cutback is not too much to ask in a state where overwatering is often the biggest problem plaguing lawns.

We don’t use the same kinds of phones or drive the same kinds of cars as we did a generation ago. Why shouldn’t we also modernize our landscapes?
However, the headline reads, "California should stretch urban supplies before cutting water to farms," which makes it appear that water to farms has yet to be cut at all. This didn't sit well with state Natural Resources Agency secretary John Laird, who asserted the headline didn't reflect the spirit of what Cowin wrote.

"That wasn't the message at all," Laird told about 300 people in a Sacramento auditorium. The forum was also watched online by an estimated 1,000 people, including me.

Laird cited the headline as an example of finger-pointing that's gone on since Gov. Jerry Brown issued his drought-related executive order last week.

"Unfortunately, some of the first blushes from some people have been to look at somebody else," said Laird, who also mentioned comments on Facebook and other social media.

Much of the finger-pointing has been coming from a traditional news media whose duty in a crisis is to disseminate accurate information that people can rely on to help them withstand the crisis. Some outlets have instead used the drought to advance an agenda of punishing farmers, who tend to be more conservative and vote differently than their urban brethren. And they wonder why the public's trust in the traditional news media is at an all-time low.

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