A California Farmer and Author Reflects on the Water
by Michael Ableman
The Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2002,
None of the recent public debates over southern
California's share of the Colorado river
have mentioned the simple fact that none
of us are living within the ecological limitations
of where we live. The discussion covers urban
versus rural entitlements, surpluses, allotments,
agreements among states and water districts,
and who is priviledged to consume more. We
have forgotten that southern California is
essentially a desert and that we're all using
water like it's the tropics.
As a small farmer I have never had that
luxury. I don't get government-subsidized
water, so by necessity our farming systems
have evolved in ways that do more with less.
This is not just a financial issue, but also
my responsibility to the other people who
share this desert, and to an ecosystem that
is essential to all of us. And ultimately,
it is also a creative and rewarding endeavor.
Each year thousands of people come through
our southern California farm to see how it
is possible to feed hundreds of families
with the harvest from only twelve and a half
acres. They see efficient drip irrigation
tapes and recycled hay mulch, and taste sweet
dry-farmed tomatoes grown with only the remains
of the rainfall we get from November to March.
They also see composting toilets that use
no water, showers that also irrigate orchards,
and tractors that run on french fry oil.
As long as farmers grow thirsty crops like
alfalfa or lettuce and city dwellers worship
green lawns, tropical landscapes, and car
washes, the struggle will continue to be
over who gets more of a shrinking resource.
As populations increase, water resources
-- whether aquifers or rivers -- will continue
to decrease. Drought conditions will stress
over-drafted systems that are expected to
yield at a far greater rate than they can
Wars have been (and may still be) fought
over oil, in the future they may be fought
over fresh water.
Rather than responding as we always seem
to do by grasping and grappling for "more",
why not seek out solutions that are based
on conservation and efficiency?
Farmers could continue to farm with a fraction
of the water they use now by selecting crops
and varieties that better fit within the
desert climate, using time honored dry-farming
techniques, replacing inefficient sprinkler
systems with drip, and improving soils so
they better absorb and retain moisture. Urban
dwellers could re-think their landscapes
to eliminate irrigation, install "waterless
toilets", reduce shower and sink flows,
and recycle grey-water. Policy makers could
provide incentives for conservation rather
than the subsidies now available for those
who use more.
When Cuba lost access to Soviet-produced
agricultural fertilizers and pesticides its
people faced starvation. Instead of seeking
out more of the same, they applied all of
their creativity and knowledge to creating
an agriculture based on self-reliance and
on natural systems that did not require outside
inputs. The "greening" of Cuba's
agriculture has become a model to the world.
I am not so naïve as to believe that
we will change without a crisis. If the imperial
water district continues to refuse a deal,
and the federal government does as it says
and cuts southern California off from surplus
Colorado river water, we will be forced to
find another way to farm and to live. Perhaps
only then will we learn to view fresh water
not as ours to use and abuse, but as the
sacred and precious resource that it is.
Michael Ableman is a farmer, educator,
and founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture
at Fairview Gardens, based on one of the
oldest organic farms in California. He
is the author of "On Good Land" (Chronicle