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Some California Rice Farmers Would Rather Sell Water Than Plant Crops

According to NASA scientists, California has about one year’s worth of water left. One of Southern California’s largest water districts is trying to get ahead of things by offering to buy groundwater from rice farmers for more than they might make from...
Photo via Flickr userconiferconifer

That sushi habit might start burning an even bigger hole in your pocket real soon. But it's not because of the fish—the rice that stuffs California rolls around the world could be getting more expensive thanks to the ongoing drought in the Southwestern United States.

According to NASA scientists, California has about one year's worth of water left before things start to get all Mad Max in the Golden State. One of Southern California's largest water districts is trying to get ahead by offering to buy groundwater from rice farmers in the fertile Sacramento Valley for $700 an acre—more than they might make from their actual crops.

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"You can't turn it away," said Lance Tennis, a rice farmer who owns about 900 acres of land in Butte County. "It's too much money."

California is one of the world's largest producers of medium-grain rice, which is popular with sushi chefs for their flavor and stickiness. One of the most common varieties of California rice, Calrose, was so popular in Korea in the 1970s and 80s that it spurred a thriving black market trade. But it's also one of the most water-consuming crops in the world: just one acre of rice consumes a little more than three acre-feet of water from planting to harvest. That's about 326,000 gallons—enough to provide water for two families for an entire year.

"It's not uncommon for us to hit the water market," said Bob Muir, an official with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. "We've done it in the past."

Selling water to Southern California isn't a new thing, but the price is—and it's been skyrocketing since the drought began. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California provides drinking water to almost 19 million people in places including Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Orange County. Back when the drought started in 2010, the water district paid $250 per acre to buy water from the north. Last year, the price was $500. And this year, Muir said, his district is willing to pay $71 million to boost their reserves with 100,000 acre-feet of water.

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Because the rights to groundwater belong to whoever lives upstream, water districts in the southern part of the state are used to buying water from their northern neighbors. Traditionally, northern farmers have sold excess water south. It's a good way to make some extra money on top of the harvest, and it creates goodwill with their neighbors, said Tennis.

"It wouldn't look good if we sat on water instead of helping other people," he said.

So far, of the nine water districts in the California Delta, only one has committed to selling off its water. But even though the money looks good to Tennis, he and other rice farmers are worried about being affected by the drought as well.

"In times of need, those with water help those in need," said Al Montna, another rice farmer. "But the abundance is no longer there."

The California Delta is one of the most fertile parts of the state, but even it hasn't escaped recent years of drought. Water restrictions have slowly cut the number of acres that rice farmers are allowed to plant over the past four years. According to Logan Wilson, a manager with the marketing cooperative Calrose Co-op, farmers have lost almost 100,000 acres of rice in recent years, and the argument over whether to sell water instead of plant crops is getting heated.

"The farmers are nervous, and the industry is nervous," Wilson said. "I've never seen a battle like this."

The planting season is just beginning, but farmers in the Sacramento Valley have yet to receive their annual water allocations, which will determine the acreage they will be allowed to plant. During a good year, Wilson said, farmers typically plant about 500,000 acres of rice. But thanks to the drought, that number has steadily dropped. Last year, farmers were only allowed to plant 425,000 acres statewide. And Wilson expects to lose another 25,000–45,000 acres when the allocations are released in a few weeks.

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Farmers like Tennis and Montna face a tough choice: Do you skip planting a portion of your crops and sell the water, or should you plant everything you can and hope that buyers will pay higher prices for the rice?

The rice industry is the backbone of the economy in the California Delta. It's not the only crop in the region, but it is the most important. Farmers, processing plants, and brokers all depend on the planting and harvest, and many families have farmed the delta for generations.

"We're already idling more land than ever," Montna said. "We're already losing markets worldwide. Once markets go overseas, they don't come back. In the long term, the water sale could lead to the demise of the California rice industry."

Al Montna belongs to one of those families. He's grown rice in the Delta since the 1960s, and his family has been farming in the Sacramento Valley since the late 1800s. As recent years have gotten tougher, he's started to see competition grow, from both foreign producers and those in the American South.

"My fear is we'll end up with half of the industry we have, and rice prices won't make up for it," Montna said. And if buyers get used to lower prices from growers in other parts of the world, he said, they won't need 500,000 acres of rice in California anymore. Even Tennis is afraid that taking the money now could hurt the industry in the future.

It's an age-old battle: save the water for the crops and hopefully bolster the local economy while providing food, or help provide for millions of urbanites. Whether the farmers end up selling their water or not, officials from the California Department of Water Resources don't think that it will affect the drought. But it might help Southern Californians feeling the worst of it.

"We're rice farmers, not water sellers," Tennis said. But still, he says, the money is just too good to let trickle away.