To beat climate change in California, rural agriculture must move north

Twenty-five years ago, at the age of 18, I followed my uncle to the top of Mount Lassen for a 10,000-foot view of the Fourth of July fireworks in Northern California. We watched the revelry begin over Reno and Lake Tahoe, and seemingly move at our feet to Lake Almanor. Then the sky of the North Valley burst like a brick of firecrackers.

The thrills continued when my uncle tried to ski down the south face of this active volcano. At the time, Lassen Peak was mostly covered in snow until midsummer, so a hard skiing on its face in July was barely noticeable. But doing it in the moonlight was – and still is – half-baked, pun intended.

Nowadays, the snowpack on the summit succumbs to the summer sun much earlier and is therefore more suitable for an e-bike daredevil with a death wish. The ski resort of Lassen, where my professional uncle started playing the sport, closed in 1993, in part due to light snowfall.

In retrospect, the fate of the Lassen ski area was a foretaste of the impending environmental and economic calculation of California and the world.

Water is life, the saying goes, but snow is prosperity. California’s annual agricultural production is around $ 50 billion, or just 2% of the state’s GDP. Yet the state’s agricultural industry uses 80% of its annual water supply. Our fellow farmers have fed many people with crops grown with this water. But all this business presupposes the stability of the water supply thanks to the Cascade-Sierra snowpack.

But for how long? Our warmer, drier climate reduces the excess water from the snowpack that flows into streams, lakes and rivers each summer. Record reservoir levels threaten to slow hydroelectric dams like Lake Oroville and could contribute to gradual blackouts this summer. We have just emerged from the severe drought of 2011-2017 in news with unfair human, environmental and economic costs that we will not experience for years.

State-wide political and political actors are clinging to solutions aimed at strengthening the status quo, primarily the continued transformation of the desert on the southern and western sides of the Central Valley into an agricultural juggernaut. The status quo also includes the continued expansion of the insatiable Southern California mega-region and major water infrastructure projects like that of Governor Gavin Newsom. Delta tunnel.

There are new ideas. Researchers at UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz are more imaginative in a study suggesting that the 4,000 miles of canals are covered with solar panels, which reduces evaporation and produces clean energy. But so far absent from the water discourse is a policy seen as best practice for dealing with another climate change villain, rising sea levels.

This policy is managed retirement.

On the coast, controlled withdrawal means abandoning habitat and development at sea. But more generally, managed withdrawal is a risk management approach to assess the use of property and infrastructure land. environmentally sensitive or at risk. It is the simple and careful recognition that we cannot rebuild and replace everything nature calls for, but we can reallocate the land to other positive uses.

A controlled withdrawal must also be on the table for the San Joaquin Valley, where the water situation ceased to be sustainable some time ago. A number of local communities lack potable water, and the pumped groundwater causes the earth itself to sink, in some places up to 28 feet.

A managed retirement would make more sense than anything we currently do. We must begin to encourage and engage people and farms in drought-affected areas dependent on water transfers to migrate to a place more welcoming for agriculture and other forms of human development.

Here’s the key question our leaders shy away from: How much profit-related stress can the state’s water supply yet be before the ecologies of entire regions – the California Delta, the Sacramento Valley – do not collapse? There is only one correct answer to this question: We don’t want to know.

If we stop diverting so much water to agriculture, especially in the hot, dry southern parts of the San Joaquin Valley, then the Sacramento Valley and Delta have a better chance of surviving climate change. It does not mean the end of agriculture. Rather, the goal is to preventively and collaboratively adapt this thirsty industry by shrinking it to match a diminished water supply.

The migration from agriculture north to the Sacramento Valley cannot be an individual trade where every business survives. The Sacramento Valley is about half the size of the San Joaquin Valley, and at most 15-20% of the land could accommodate offshoring agriculture. The majority of San Joaquin’s farm businesses will not survive in their current form, but some could find new life by converting their fallow fields into solar farms to help the state meet its goal of fossil fuel-free electricity here. 2045. Or we can allow the San Joaquin Valley to return to the desert it was before our ancestors planted a garden there.

Our main export crops, almonds and pistachios, are the most obvious candidates for downsizing, as are cattle ranching and thirsty alfalfa grown for livestock feed. To ensure that new water-hungry almond orchards are not planted in the North Valley, the state can encourage a transition to low-water consumption crops.

None of this is easy – it requires our elected leaders to find new wisdom, wean themselves from the gifts and influence of the great agricultural campaigns, and make holistic and geographic decisions for the long-term health of the state. . But things will get even more difficult if we wait until nature does not give us a choice.

We don’t want California to end up as the Lassen Ski Area, gone because it no longer had the snow it relied on.

Which brings me back to my uncle’s insane skiing in the moonlight. He lost his balance after 20 feet and slipped sideways and onto his back. He surfed the volcano and walked away with nothing but a minor scratch on his forearm.

I can still feel the wind blowing from the summit and remember thinking that, seen from above, the fireworks looked like jellyfish. Today I think about how this view might not last forever. The state is so dry and prone to fires, that we don’t have long before the 4th of July fireworks, like this snow from Lassen, are a thing of the past.

Jeremiah Ramirez, originally from North Valley, is an analyst in the office of the CFO of CalPERS. This piece was written for the public square of Zócalo. Twitter: @GovNerd

About Keneth T. Graves

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