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Opinion: Bay Area farmers use water efficiently

Tim Chiala, Mercury News

Opinion: Bay Area farmers use water efficiently

Though most of us only think about water during a storm or when hydrating after a long workout, water is always at the forefront of a farmer's mind. Aside from land, water is the most important resource we rely upon to grow food for the world.

We are good stewards of our water, and we know that without a steady water supply, our businesses and our livelihoods are in peril. This is important to remember as the state debates water policy.

Due to water's importance in California's semiarid climate, farmers in Santa Clara County have been proactive in ensuring our farms have enough water to meet crop needs.

On our family farm in Morgan Hill, we work with irrigation specialists from the University of California to monitor and improve our irrigation practices. Their research shows that we consistently achieve 90 percent irrigation efficiency, quite a feat considering the complexities of soil profiles, plant uptake and evapotranspiration. Our irrigation systems are easily the most complex aspect of our farming operation, designed and installed by experts.

Since we haven't found a way to create more water, farmers have become more efficient with existing supplies by using every available technology to increase efficiency and by developing new technologies.

Today, the vast majority of local farms have determined that drip irrigation and micro-sprinkler systems maximize efficiency, and we're not alone. Statewide investment in these efficient irrigation systems totaled over $2 billion from 2003 to 2010, accounting for 1.3 million acres.

Thankfully, the Santa Clara Valley Water District provides a reliable water supply. Yet even without a severe local shortage, Santa Clara Valley growers have aggressively installed the latest in irrigation efficiency technologies.

An estimated 90 percent of Santa Clara County's bell pepper fields -- the county's No. 1 outdoor crop -- are on drip irrigation. Aside from mobile sprinkler systems used during early development, all the water used for the crop is applied directly to the root zone, eight inches below the surface, where it is not susceptible to evaporation.

The same is true for all of Santa Clara Valley's main crops including garlic, corn, tomatoes, chili peppers and grapes.

Today's irrigation systems allow farmers to produce more food using less water. Water use on California farms has remained essentially flat for over 40 years while production has almost doubled. This is the result of tireless efforts to increase efficiency.

Efficient water use means farmers can stay in business and continue to grow food, provide open space, care for the environment and create jobs. It means California farmers are able to grow more than half of the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts. It means California farmers grow an abundant food supply to meet local, state, national, and global demand.

Efficient water use means farmers pay it forward by passing irrigation water along in the form of food, meeting one of the most basic human needs.

The bottom line is plants are living things that require water. We work daily to become more efficient with our water, but farms will always require irrigation. Reducing water for farmers would result in a direct and undeniable reduction in food supply at a time of global food shortages.

As we all work together to address our present and future water challenges, farmers will continue to think creatively, invest in new technologies, and develop drought-resistant plant varieties to grow more food with less water. We will need to make choices over time, but growing food will always be one of society's best uses for water.

TIM CHIALA is a third generation row crop farmer in Morgan Hill and president of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau. He wrote this article for this newspaper.

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