California’s agricultural miracle… may be nearing its expiration date.

Recent articles in the Christian Science Monitor and Huffington Post indicate that California’s drought situation is extreme, with record breaking heat continuing, Sierra Mountain snowpack at a pittance of long-term averages, and the vast majority of reservoirs throughout the Central Valley region at 40% capacity or considerably less. In addition, over allocation of surface waters (apparently 5 x what the state actually has), inadequate conservation efforts, and the drilling frenzy depicted in the original article, are conspiring against effective solutions. Incredibly, California lacked groundwater regulation until last fall—three new bills were introduced to the CA state assembly last September and subsequently signed into law by Governor Brown. The trouble is that implementing the regulations could take years! It may be too little too late. Incidentally, I think Erica Gies’ article “As water crisis deepens, California finally passes groundwater regulation” provides an excellent background on the challenges to conservation in CA’s agriculture sector.

To me, an ecosystem-based approach like Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) offers a sensible solution, particularly in water-stressed regions like California and the Southwestern USA. It’s being applied to varying degrees in river basins around the globe, including the Missouri and Columbia Rivers in the US, and most extensively, in the Murray-Darling Basin of Australia. This kind of management prioritizes in-stream flows (to maintain environmental flows necessary for river system health), takes into account tributaries, ground water supplies, as well as other components of the hydrological system, and integrates ecological needs and human needs into river basin/water resource management.

CA should follow the Murray-Darling Basin’s lead by implementing a cap on total withdrawals from surface and ground water supplies, a market to enable trading and allocation of water resources to where they’re needed most, and ecosystem-based management protocols. The sacrifices necessary in such lean times will be shared by all stakeholders, but will likely impact the agricultural sector hardest. It may be the only path to a sustainable future for farming in the Central Valley.