Water Use In Rice

California Rice Commission urges “real people” to communicate about rice during the drought

If there is one thing that is associated with rice other than rice straw burning, it is misperceptions about its water use. The common dig that rice uses a lot of water was started in 1986 when Marc Reisner wrote the book Cadillac Desert. While Marc later revised his position on rice, noting that it was the only crop that replaced the once vast wetlands in the Central Valley, most still have a misperception that rice is a water thirsty crop.

During this third year of an historic drought, it is imperative that lawmakers, regulators and the public have a better understanding of our crop and water use. To that end, the California Rice Commission (CRC) has been actively working with the Northern California Water Association to first educate people about how water is used in the Sacramento Valley where surface water is comparatively abundant even in dry years.

Educating people that water moves from the top of the valley and reservoirs in the Sierra and then flows through rice fields, tree crops, wetlands and eventually into the delta is the first challenge. In a world where the only good irrigation is drip irrigation, flooded fields cause people to raise an eyebrow. We are also highlighting the many values of water use in the Sacramento Valley that support the economies of small towns, productive agriculture and vast habitat for hundreds of species. We emphasize that public and private wetlands benefit from the water that leaves our fields. We talk about the millions of ducks and geese that migrate along the Pacific Flyway and note shorebird habitat directly supported by flooded rice fields as well.
Obviously, we note that rice does not use the amount of water commonly cited. With a water depth of only five inches and precision leveling of fields, water use in rice is equivalent to other more familiar crops like oranges or broccoli.

Finally, we are emphasizing that solutions to the state’s water challenges need to include Sites Reservoir and other surface storage. We point out that Sites has been part of the discussion in the Sacramento Valley for over 30 years. It is a solution today that can offer huge benefits for the decades ahead. Of greatest importance, we are using real people to talk to our neighbors about water –farmers, water district managers and community leaders in our small Sacramento Valley towns.

This issue is replete with talking heads. People want to hear from those that are affected and those that can make a difference. This article appeared in the March 2014 edition of CRC’s California Rice News.