Water and Rice – baseless attacks and twisting “facts”

By Tim Johnson

A slew of negative stories on farm water use – it must be that the water bond has a chance of passing! Certainly, recent polling shows that the majority of California supports a water bond. What’s more, water and drought are among the most important issues for California according to a recent PPIC poll.

I didn’t, however, need any polling to pick up on these trends – I just started seeing time–worn and inaccurate hit pieces on rice and water use appearing in blogs of the political fringe.

While the claims against rice are not new, they do deserve a thoughtful response, which is far more than they provide. Here goes.

Claim: Rice uses too much water

Response: Rice actually uses about the same amount of water per serving as oranges or broccoli. Heavy clay soils where rice is grown limit percolation into groundwater, leaving the water not consumed by the plant (about 50% of what is applied to the field) available for use by other farmers, wetlands and urban uses.

Claim: Rice uses subsidized water

Response: Arguments are confused here. In the Sacramento Valley, rice is largely irrigated with water rights that go back decades if not a hundred years. Farmers were using the water well before we experienced large urban growth of recent years. In addition, farmers have paid for the canals and many of the reservoirs.

Claim: Rice is a subsidized crop

Response: Historically it was correct that rice farmers received support for growing their crop. While not large, averaging only $1.86 per hundred pounds of rice, the support did help offset nearly the $20 per hundred pound cost to grow rice. This support system ceased however in 2014 and farmers will now be supported only when prices drop well below the cost of production and will rely on crop insurance to cover losses and allow them to remain on the farm.

What I find most interesting in these blogs is what they don’t say. Nary a word about the environmental benefits of rice production or the rural communities in the Sacramento Valley.

Habitat in rice fields: How can they miss the long list of environmental groups including The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, Point Blue Conservation Science and Ducks Unlimited who have discovered the huge value of rice fields to water birds. Sacramento Valley rice fields provide nearly 60 percent of the food for the millions of ducks and geese that annually migrate here each winter along the Pacific Flyway. Rice fields in the region are designated as Shorebird Habitat of International Significance. You think all of the in-depth research and snappy infographics would have picked up on that.

Rural communities: Somehow water used on agriculture and in rural communities is always seen as bad compared to environmental and urban uses. Having addressed the environmental argument, let’s look for a minute at the rural and urban dynamic. Just north of Sacramento’s urban core is a very rural landscape. Towns here are small and communities are tied to the land. Places like Colusa, Willows and Biggs look like small Midwestern towns. The jobs here are in agriculture and, yes, agriculture uses water. I can’t understand how communities with families that go back generations and Main Streets with barbers, hardware stores and a one–screen theaters can be construed as inappropriate users of water. Are they valuing people by their zip code?

Here are the links to two recent views of rice. I will leave it to you to decide if their perspectives are in context or, at the least, thoughtful.

Fox and Hounds: (http://www.foxandhoundsdaily.com/2014/10/deeper-debt-better-water-policy-voters-will-decide-november/)

Takeapart.com: (http://www.takepart.com/feature/2014/10/23/california-drought-statistics-infographic )

Tim Johnson, CRC President & CEO