The thinking started small and then grew much bigger at a gathering Tuesday in Bakersfield that was intended to provide a "survival toolkit" for farmers and water managers facing drastic restrictions on Central Valley groundwater pumping.
Irrigation and other technical specialists opened the meeting by promoting ways to maximize the region's existing water resources. Discussions ranged from individual investments in desalination to gathering water-use data as a way for farmers to defend against government accusations of over-pumping.
By the end of the day, however, isolationism gave way to calls for unity as speakers asserted that the only real solution was to increase the region's water supply by as much as 10 million acre-feet per year on average by diverting water south from the Sacramento Delta.
At no point was a choice presented between modest measures — upgrading growers' water management practices, for example — versus making broad changes to California's water system. But the tone of those focused on the bigger picture Tuesday seemed to cast doubt on the adequacy of any adjustments individual farmers might be able to make on their own.
Water consultant Scott Hamilton said the state should absolutely do more to capture stormwater then put it to use recharging rapidly depleting groundwater aquifers, and that farmers would do well to purify and reuse salty, contaminated groundwater.
"All of that's great," the president of Hamilton Resource Economics said. "The trouble is, that's not nearly enough."
Comments he and others made Tuesday underscored the urgency facing Central Valley agriculture as local organizations work toward a deadline of early next year to file plans for bringing groundwater use into long-term sustainability. Cutbacks are expected to be phased in during the next 20 years under California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, known as SGMA.
By some estimates, up to 1.5 million acres of Central Valley farmland will have to be taken out of production, with potentially devastating effects on local communities as plummeting land values reduce property tax revenues that support local schools and governments.
Tuesday's meeting, hosted by the American Pistachio Growers trade group at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame on Q Street, drew dozens of attendees, including a number of water district officials and a smattering of local nut growers.
Vendors called upon to present their technology offered hope that farmers willing to invest in efficiency may be able cover the gap between the amount of water growers use now and the more limited allocations they'll have under SGMA.
A representative of Brandt Consolidated Inc. told about the benefits of treating local groundwater, while a pitch man for Water Assurance Partners described a new approach for financing and powering desalination of low-quality groundwater. A manager at Landmark Irrigation extolled the value of maximizing growers' water distribution systems.
Even in that context of helping farms one at a time, the point was made that growers need to do a better job stating their case.
Hydrogeologist Chris Johnson said farmers will want to arm themselves with detailed information about their water use, and be ready to share it with regulators.
"Who speaks for ag?" he asked, implying that individual growers must advocate for themselves. "You really have to work on that."
This same theme came up later in the gathering when Hamilton and another panelist, Johnny Amaral, advocated support for a plan called the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint, much of which is aimed at diverting some of the water that now flows into the Pacific Ocean through the Sacramento Delta.
Amaral, the recently appointed chief of external affairs for the Friant Water Authority, said the valley's farming communities have historically lobbied independently for their own narrow interests. The time has come, he said, to set aside that approach in favor of a bigger goal: enactment of the Blueprint.
Accomplishing that will require rewriting federal biological opinions about how redirecting water would affect endangered species in California, he said. He called this "paramount" to addressing SGMA's long-term effects, and said nothing less will suffice.
"In our opinion," he said, "the way to deal with it is to find new water supply."