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California Agricultural Irrigation Association, September 26, 2023

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By Don A. Wright

The California Agricultural Irrigation Association held its annual member meeting at Pismo Beach on September 13th and 14th, 2023. I was invited to speak on one of the panel sessions and we’ll get to that in a bit, but the information given and the folks giving it was on the whole worthwhile.

Media & Legislation

The first presentation was by Mike Wade on the topic of legislation and regulation. Wade is the face of the California Farm Water Coalition; an organization familiar to many in the ag community. I recommend its clipping service as a quick, well less cumbersome way to stay up to date on news reports concerning water. Remember this is a clipping service, not original content. So don’t read something incredibly biased or stupid or both and blame CFWC. They’re just passing along what others are writing.

Wade spoke about efforts to present California growers’ positions on the Colorado River supply proceedings. He reasoned television was too costly for the return of views, radio is OK but the best way to reach a targeted audience in this media environment is online. Although print does add clout to a message and ideally should be used in conjunction with the internet when possible.Lidco Inc.

Next Wade spoke about the raucous legislative year we’ve had. He said a coalition was built to oppose some very bad bills and it worked. He listed seven bills that would have radically changed the power and engagement of the State Water Resources Control Board, proof of water rights, adjudication of groundwater involvement by GSAs and the State Board and an insane well permitting bill that would halt drilling in the Valley.

Of particular interest was AB 779 by Assemblywoman Lori Wilson that has yet to be defeated. As I write this it’s sitting on the Governor’s desk waiting to signed or vetoed. AB 779 would place a big burden on Groundwater Sustainability Agencies if a subbasin’s groundwater should ever be forced to enter into adjudication. Wilson represents Assembly District 11 much of it is in Solano County which is also the location Silicon Valley investors want to build a new “Smart” city in the middle of farmland. One wonders. And that may be all one can do because the group of investors were widely criticized for hiding behind shell corporations.Technoflo

The other bill I found interesting is from Assemblyman Steve Bennett. Last year Bennett proposed AB 2201 that would require a new well permit include an engineer’s report certifying the well wouldn’t impact any nearby wells or create a further problem with the area’s GSP goals. Engineers said such a report could cost an extra quarter of a million dollars and they may not be able to secure professional insurance to cover their license for such a report. Newsom told Bennet not to submit AB 2201 or he’d get a veto, or so I’ve been told. Bennett tried again this year with AB 1563 but I believe Bennett pulled it.Brandt Water Treatment

Overall there were many bad bills, so bad a coalition was formed by ag, municipalities and business strong enough to either kill or force a rewrite of most of the problematic proposed legislation. These bad bills are almost all written by Bay Area and Southern California coastal representatives who wouldn’t know how ag irrigation fits into the circle of life if they depended on it, which they do.

Irrigation Association

            Nathan Bowen of the Irrigation Association reported on federal matters. IA is located in Fairfax, Virginia, about 15-miles from Washington DC. Bowen predicted there will be a federal shutdown. He said the fight is between the House and the Senate and with Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s slim hold on the majority he doesn’t envy him. The big talk in DC has been the possible impeachment proceedings against Biden and the farm bill.

Bowen said he expects this reiteration of the five-year farm bill to contain about $1 trillion worth of expenditures. IA, according to Bowen helps prioritize food production and water supply. So much of the farm bill goes to food stamps it needs a little help. He said the EQIP grant program helps with this and IA is working to relax the eligibility requirements to qualify for an EQIP grant. It is also working to improve the farm bill’s definition of a technical service provider and rural internet access.

There this a thing known as the “Dairy Cliff” that kicks in on January 1st if the farm bill is not passed. It sounded ominous as without some legislative manipulation dairy laws from the 1930s and 1940s will spring back to life wreaking havoc in the dairy industry. Two other topics Bowen mentioned were Right to Repair which is being handled state by state and the redefinition of Waters Of The United States. John Deere Tractor has been in the news due to the right to repair controversy and serves as an example. Some tractor manufacturers have programed the onboard computer to lock out end users from changing parts and I’ve heard in some case even doing routine maintenance. This has made owners very unhappy to have their tractor shutdown in a field because a filter needs changing and they have to have a factory trained repairman out to change the filter and start the tractor.

The Biden administration has tried unsuccessfully to expand the area covered by WOTUS but was blocked by the Supreme Court.

Distribution Uniformity

I don’t know why but to me the term “distribution uniformity” sounds a lot like bureaucratic gobble-dee-gook. Why not uniform distribution? But the irrigation pros like it like that and shortened it DU. It means an irrigation system is working optimally, the water is getting where it needs to go. I’ve heard when you first put your system in it is at it’s peak and goes down hill from brand new to whatever you end up with.

Jim Anschutz is a Fresno based entrepreneur who has been instrumental in developing DU engineering tool. He estimates there are 50 million irrigation blocks in California and more than half of the factors impacting poor crop quality and yield are directly related to poor irrigation. Anschutz has developed a tool to detect where the problem in the system is. It’s a free service and tests show the refurbishments undertaken have a return on investment in less than a year and a half.

Anschutz said what we hear over and over again – if there’s water coming out of the irrigation system that’s good enough. Growers don’t want to invest in upgrades. He made a strong case that they should and getting DU optimized is a good place to start.

Next, on a larger scale Dr. Charles Burt of Cal Poly’s ITRC, Irrigation Technology Research Center spoke on how irrigation and water districts can improve their water deliveries. He said the basic principals apply to landscape and on farm water conveyance. He said the modern SCADA system is complex with axial and mixed flows. I apologize, I do not have the engineering and hydrology expertise to truly do justice to Dr. Burt’s presentation but I found he and Mr. Anschutz’s talks to carry the most impact for water use efficiency and that should translate to saving money for growers.

Elizabeth Goodman of Netafim moderated a panel of farmers asking them what challenges they are facing. There was a representative from JG Boswell, a vegetable grower from the coast named Nob (never did find out his last name – might have been Hayashi) and another grower from the San Joaquin Valley who didn’t say much of anything.

The Boswell representative spoke about the flooding of Tulare Lake as one might expect. He said most of the land underwater is used for seasonal crops and they lost very little in the way of trees. I’ve heard a lot about how the waters of the reemerged Tulare Lake are badly polluted but it sounded like the folks in the area see submerged obstacles as far more dangerous to jet skiers and such.

He was asked about hiring good employees and told a story I think had some good merit. He said he was at a job fair looking for entry level management candidates. Afterwards one of the folks in the booth next to him was critical of his interactions. The other guy said the Boswell man had whitewashed the rigors of working in agriculture by telling the candidates they’d mostly get weekends off. The other said he told his candidates they’d be working 60-70 hours a week in a demanding position. The Boswell man said if your organization is working its management 60-70 hours a week month after month you’re doing something terribly wrong.

Goodman said she’s hearing about large grocery buyers asking farmers about their ESG practices. That’s environmental, social and governance; it’s woke-speak. Nob said the way things are going he sees fresh fruits and vegetables becoming a luxury item. That was chilling but the elites in our society have no understanding about how food is grown. Goodman also said one way to predict the weather for California is to see what just happened in Australia. Admittedly not perfect and in my experience I’ve yet to see anything beat the tried and true hog spleen indicator but Australian weather is an interesting take I’d not heard.

Ag Writers

This was the panel I participated on with Jim Lauria, Mazzei Injectors as the moderator. Also on the panel with me was Lois Henry* owner of SJV Water and Richard Restuccia, Global VP Business Development for Rivulis/Jain.

Lauria asked us about how we came to be water writers, what we see as the major upcoming issues and one question in particular – do or would we use an AI program like Chat GPT. I don’t really remember much of what the other two panelists said or what I said for the most part. I wasn’t taking notes and I was trying to not look like a donut in front of a room full of people.

The low fruit in my memory is Lauria and Restuccia all use Chat GPT or something similar at least a little bit. I said no, I’m really writing about people when you get down to it and I don’t trust a computer program without a soul to do that. I didn’t mention that I’ve spent a lifetime developing a voice and style that works for me and I believe communicates pretty well.

Other responses that come to mind include Henry saying she doesn’t advocate for agriculture, she just tries to tell the story as truthfully as she can and let the chips fall. I endorsed her inalienable First Amendment right to do so even if I don’t agree with some of her positions. I said I do advocate for ag.

Later in the afternoon towards evening there was a cocktail and hors d’oeuvres reception on the terrace overlooking the ocean. It was a good setting and a chance to get to know folks.

Day Two

The day began with a CAIA membership meeting over breakfast and a presentation by Dennis Donohue, former Mayor of Salinas and Director of Technology for Western Growers Association. Some highlights from Donohue.

Folks are leaving California due to the struggle to adapt to regulatory burdens and taxes. There are input restrictions on pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides coming from the state bureaucracy. Labor is a problem for many growers and Donohue said robotics will help but pointed out the highly repetitive tasks are being performed by R2D2 while what the industry also needs is a more skilled, aka harvest services, of CP3O. A nice Star Wars reference.

Donohue said water contamination and automated irrigation are topics to prepare to deal with more and more. He said he spoke with AG Kawamura, former California Secretary of Agriculture who said the issue of micro plastics in water will become a very big issue with the United Nations weighing in with its worried brow.

He said retail food marketers want sustainable biological growing practices. There is a trend (and I’ve heard this elsewhere) of doing away with as much chemicals as possible and perhaps even further than that – to a crippling level of restriction. This is a problem for the big global operators as much as the small farmer. He said there will have to be a correction to bring costs back in line with reality.

Innovation fatigue is increasing. Growers are saying they’ve never had so much data and they’re overwhelmed. They don’t know what to do with it. Donohue said growers are more interested in what to do next than in just diagnostic data. He said he sees AI coming into play here.

Donohue said the ag industry is going to have to be more assertive and point out what won’t work. Resistance to change is real but some change will prevent food from being grown – just when we’re all getting hungry too. He said biological soil health is becoming an important part of farm husbandry and just may replace organic farming. And he said the United Nations isn’t as influential in setting trends as the European Union so keep an eye on the EU to see what regulatory paths are being blazed that might head this direction.


This was one of the more instructional events I’ve attended. I learned a good deal about trends and I believe growers could benefit from Distribution Uniformity, still think that’s a stupid name. But Anschutz’s DU estimator tool holds some promise in my mind. Certainly, the districts could benefit from Dr. Burt’s research. If you’re not aware of CAIA it’s a group of forward thinking folks who want a prosperous ag industry in California. Get to know them is my suggestion.

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*In the original version posted I misspelled Lois’ first name and wrote I thought she used Chat GPT. She does not, let’s be clear. Let’s also be clear, my apologies.

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