Farmers and ranchers insist that they are conservationists. They smart at the suggestion that they might waste water. They have to conserve because the cost of irrigating their crops is part of their business overhead. Studies also indicate that water savings to be gained through irrigation conservation are limited, with the notable exception of the Imperial Irrigation District, where considerable irrigation runoff goes into the Salton Sea each year.
But the California farming community is ignoring common sense and good politics when it opposes a bill by Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento) to require agricultural water districts to develop water-conservation plans. Urban water districts have been required to do such planning since 1983.
Agriculture uses about 36 million acre-feet of water each year--60 times the amount consumed in the City of Los Angeles. A district-by-district analysis of potential irrigation conservation is bound to identify enough waste to make the program worthwhile. Implementation of the plans is largely up to the districts themselves, so the regulatory burden is not onerous.
More important, California agriculture is finding itself increasingly on the defensive in the political battle for the state's diminishing water resources. Stubborn opposition to this modest conservation program is not the sort of symbolism that is going to help the farmers' case.