Outlaw rice production, save water

Growing this crop in our arid climate makes no sense, especially amid the drought

The author, a small-business owner and Butte County resident, says he “loves his rice as much as the next guy, just as long as he has enough water left over to take a shower.”

As the son of a diplomat growing up in Thailand, I used to wonder at the endless expanse of rice fields in the southern part of the country. Today, as a resident of Butte County, I am still amazed when I drive through Yolo and Butte counties and see thousands of flooded acres of rice crops. But the amazement is for different reasons.

Thailand has been cultivating rice for at least 2,000 years. In Butte County, the first commercial rice crop was grown in Richvale in 1912—barely a century ago. Today, I am told that Northern California is No. 1 in the nation for growing medium-grain rice—much of it sold overseas.

I continue to scratch my head at a state government concerned with domestic water users saving on their toilet flushes (“if it’s yellow let it mellow”) but willing to ignore the profligate use of a crop that takes almost 3 million acre-feet of water per year to grow, according to the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources.

The most salient factoid is this: Thailand averages 50 inches of rainfall each year in Bangkok and nearly 150 in the southern rice-growing region. Sacramento, where rice was first introduced during the Gold Rush by Chinese immigrants, averages fewer than 20 inches. In other words, rice has no historical place in California and our rain totals—even in good years—simply cannot justify it as a crop.

A study by Blaine Hanson at UC Davis suggested that California’s crop selection was unsupportable from a water-use point of view, and that farming should concentrate on high-value crops like tree crops and vegetable crops. Just the evaporative water loss alone from rice fields baking under the 100 degree valley heat is staggering. It takes an astounding 528 gallons of water to create 2.2 pounds of California rice, according to the Water Footprint Network.

Sacramento continues to fiddle while the fields burn, but then are cooled off by daily influxes of Sierra water that is better used on almost any crop other than rice. The farm lobby is so influential that Gov. Jerry Brown and the rest will not make the simple and logical choice—outlaw rice as a crop and leave production of it to the tropical countries of the world.

We need to wake up to reality, if we are serious about helping to ease an ongoing historic drought.