Many within the general public assume that rice fields require large quantities of an increasingly precious re-source – water. That’s simply not true, but faced with years of drought in California, public scrutiny has become very intense.
That’s why the California Rice Commission (CRC) has made a concerted effort to educate legislators, decision makers and opinion leaders about water use efficiency in California rice, as well as its importance to the state’s economy and the environment.
One of the key points that the industry is trying to communicate through education and advertisement is the efficiency of water use already being utilized in California rice production systems.
CRC president and CEO Tim Johnson visited 75 legislative offices at the state capitol this spring, meeting one-on-one with members of the California Senate and Assembly and their top aides. Johnson provided information about California rice, its value and water use efficiency.
“The visits were very productive,” he says. “It is evident that legislators are receptive to learning more about our crop, how efficient our industry is with water and the tremendous economic and environmental value of California rice.”
10-year initiative targets water use record
Part of CRC’s educational effort has included an advertisement – Rice Growers Make Every Drop Count – a full-page, full-color ad in the Sacramento Bee, Capitol Weekly and Marysville Appeal-Democrat that reached more than 700,000 readers and Internet viewers with facts about water use efficiency in California rice fields.
However, the rice industry is not stopping with just a public relations program. They’re planning to get even more aggressive regarding conservation issues. The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in conjunction with CRC will soon embark on a 10-year initiative to improve the industry’s already remarkable water use record.
“This initiative should prove extremely valuable,” Johnson says. “We are focused on finding ways for our growers to build on their impressive record of water use efficiency, without any loss of yield or quality that California is known for.”
There are a couple of exploratory projects that will begin this summer to help establish the parameters of the 10-year initiative, according to Cass Mutters, UC Butte County Farm Advisor.
“Rice growers have already done such an excellent job with things such as laser leveling, shorter season varieties and other measures, that it is going to be a real challenge to find ways to cut water use even further,” Mutters says.
CRC statistics show the state’s rice farmers have become nearly 40 percent more efficient with water use over the last 30 years.
“When you see a flooded rice field, there are generally only two to five inches of standing water, so it’s not a lake by any stretch of the imagination,” Mutters says. “Additionally, we’re dealing with heavy clay soils that have a nearly impermeable layer underneath, so it’s like a bathtub that holds water. You don’t get much percolation.”
The total amount of seasonal use as calculated by California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) is about 5.7 acre-feet, although consumptive use averages about 3.4 acre-feet. That compares favorably to crops such as oranges, alfalfa and others, according to Mutters.
Rice industry steps up to the plate
Water will no doubt continue to be a point of contention among competing consumers in coming years. Although this winter’s precipitation was not quite as dire as expected, it’s still a tough situation.
“California was bailed out of a water-short year by some late rain and snow,” says Jim Hill, Extension rice agronomist and Associate Dean of International Programs with the College of Environmental Sciences at UC Davis. “We wound up with about 80 to 85 percent of normal rainfall, which would be considered a ‘less-than-average’ year when taken alone. However, it comes on top of multiple short rainfall years and half-full reservoirs, so that adds up to a need to conserve as much as possible. Fortunately, the rice industry has already taken many steps to do their share.”
Brenda Carol is a freelance writer based in California. Contact her at (805) 226-9896 or firstname.lastname@example.org.