STATEMENT: Voluntary Agreement on Water Represents the Future and Deserves Prop 68 Funding

STATEMENT: Voluntary Agreement on Water Represents the Future and Deserves Prop 68 Funding

By Mike Wade, Executive Director

California Farm Water Coalition

California has always prided itself on cutting-edge ideas. It is the place others turn to for new solutions to old problems. We are currently faced with a choice to continue that tradition of innovation with a fresh approach to water and environmental management or chain ourselves to outdated practices of the past.

Last fall, in a historic first, competing water interests came together to produce a voluntary agreement (VA) that will govern water use, habitat projects, and implement new science-based management practices. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says the VA would, “increase flows in rivers and the Delta and make major investments in habitat. And perhaps most important, create sustainable funding for these efforts (including fees on water diversions), while improving scientific research on and governance of restoration efforts.”

This agreement is the result of years of collaboration between government agencies, water users and environmental interests, conducting scientific studies and projects that put the new science into practice. The VA takes us out of the slow grind of the existing regulatory process and allows us to use scientific structured decision-making to address problems as we go.

The California Legislature is considering a budget this week with funds specifically earmarked for the VA that could provide additional momentum to this progress. Funding from the voter-approved Proposition 68 will help jump start this science-based process. That would mean choosing science-based rules and voluntary, holistic approaches to problems rather than the outdated regulatory status quo. The PPIC says, “What’s clear is that negotiated solutions to water conflicts are fairer and longer-lasting than top-down regulatory solutions or, worse yet, litigated solutions where judges end up trying to manage water.”

And there’s no reason to cling to the past. It’s clear that the current outdated system isn’t working for anyone. Endangered fish populations continue to struggle; farmers face dwindling water supplies; urban users make continuous cutbacks; groundwater supplies are dangerously depleted; and current policy does not address new challenges we face from climate change.

One of the many things this process has revealed is that helping struggling fish populations takes more than water, which is important, but not the only habitat feature fish need. It takes a combination of water at the right time plus attention to habitat, food supply and predator control.

There are other ingredients essential to this agreement. Under the VA, change happens now. Additional water for environmental purposes and habitat restoration begins immediately. That means we reap the benefits today. The regulatory approach could take decades. Plus, in another important first, agricultural water users will pay fees to implement ongoing environmental projects. While there is a need for initial Prop 68 funding, user fees are critical to long-term success because they are an ongoing source of funding.

In a letter to legislators in support of the VA, a group of statewide organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the Bay Area Council, summed it up this way: “The Voluntary Agreements provide a tremendous opportunity to provide more water for fish, wildlife and habitat restoration and a more reliable water supply for a growing state with climate and water supply challenges. The Voluntary Agreement will replace the policy and legal conflicts that have defined the last three decades. Instead, they rely on a collaborative and adaptive management process that will move the state substantially closer to the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.”

California must choose. The Voluntary Agreement represents the future and a new path away from a failed regulatory approach.

Statement by Mike Wade, California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director On the Release of New Biological Assessments

Statement by Mike Wade, California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director On the Release of New Biological Assessments

SACRAMENTO, CA – Recognizing the failure of the existing biological opinions issued a decade ago by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for Delta smelt and by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for salmon, the Bureau of Reclamation released a new biological assessment which serves as the basis for new biological opinions that will be released within 135 days. The Biological Assessment details the manner in which the agencies will operate the project and make operations more effective in preserving fish and delivering water to communities and farms. The Bureau of Reclamation is now taking a common-sense approach and applying scientific principles to water supply and fishery protections.

“The current, outdated biological opinions have been plagued with operational problems that experts determined were largely ineffective at helping the endangered fish they were intended to help,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “In addition, the two outdated biological opinions often worked against one another, such as requiring more upstream storage for salmon to keep temperatures lower and at the same time, requiring more water to be released to the Delta to benefit smelt. These biological opinions have failed all parties – fish and wildlife, communities, and farmers,” he said.

The Bureau’s new Biological Assessment takes into account the failures of the older biological opinions and creates a new process to modernize operations, utilizing science and operational flexibility to improve the operations and efficiency of the Central Valley and State Water projects. The Biological Assessment makes several changes to the operations of the Central Valley Project, based on the experience with the older biological opinions, the drought, and prior policy decisions. This modern Biological Assessment requires science-based operational changes that respond to actual conditions rather than follow a calendar-based approach to species protections. Using a smarter approach encourages adjustments that will allow for better temperature control for salmon while reducing the impacts on the Delta. It bases flow requirements on a variety of factors rather than using flow as the sole determinant for water project management.

The Biological Assessment moves away from the failed presumption that water projects are the only cause of the decline in fish species.

“The new Biological Assessment starts with a “clean slate” and seeks to determine those effects that are unrelated to the projects but are impacting fish populations in order to manage the projects. By focusing on a more integrated and holistic approach, federal and state agencies can utilize science and effective operational measures in the new biological opinions to address all the factors impacting the fish populations, he said.

The operations analyzed in the new Biological Assessment are intended to allow the projects, designed and built to provide water to California communities, to fulfill that obligation and provide critical information to federal and state agencies that will improve the conditions for fish and wildlife and the Delta habitat.

Updating the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan

SWRCB updating Bay-Delta Water Quality Plan and SED

In 2016, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) began the process of updating the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The public comment period officially closed at noon on March 17. (Read CFWC’s comment letter here.)

During that time, loud and sustained objections to the proposed policy have been raised.

Flow-based approaches in the past have failed

By focusing solely on the amount of water flowing through the river, the SWRCB staff proposal is relying on outdated science that has been proven ineffective at halting the decline of endangered fish populations. Incredibly, if adopted in its present form, the policy will also have a devastating impact on drinking water, sanitation needs, food production, groundwater, the economy and jobs for people stretching from the Northern San Joaquin Valley throughout the Bay Area.

That’s why this proposed regulation is opposed by schools, health departments, farmers, cities, economic development officials, and water agencies throughout the state including the Central Valley, Bay Area, Central Coast, Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire.

Opposition to SWRCB plan is growing

Opposition to this wrong-headed policy has continued to grow and now includes statewide groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and the Association of California Water Agencies, regional organizations such as the Orange County Business Council as well as hundreds of individual Californians. Not even a drought-busting water year like this one could diminish the impacts of this unequivocally bad policy.

Holistic Approach with Functional Flows, not SED Approach

What we need instead is a comprehensive, outcomes-driven, science-based, collaborative approach that includes “functional” flows as well as non-flow solutions that contribute real benefits to ecosystem recovery.

As the Board goes behind closed doors to deliberate the draft proposal we would urge them one more time to listen to the voices representing millions of Californians opposed to the plan and open the door to collaborating on a real solution.

Water User Response to Bureaucratic Intrusion

Over 20 farm organizations and public water agencies reacted quickly to letters from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that requested actions that would have slowed progress to repair infrastructure at Oroville Dam. A second letter from NMFS did little to reduce concerns over out-of-touch bureaucrats intervening in emergency operations intended to restore a significant part of California’s water supply.

Farm Organization and Public Water Agency Response (3-1-17) HERE

NMFS Initial Letter (2-24-17) HERE

NMFS Follow-up Letter (2-28-17) HERE

Governor’s Call to Ensure Safety of Dams Must be Coupled with Recognition of their Value

There has been a lot of talk about dams lately and rightly so. The emergency at Oroville Dam, as well as other storm-related damage to the state’s infrastructure, reminded us of the awesome power of nature and the effort people have taken over the years to control it.

We support the Governor’s call today to improve dam safety and move forward with inspections. The inspection process should proceed carefully and be conducted in a way that protects the water collected that is helping bring the extended drought to an end. We also agree with the Governor’s request to expedite Proposition 1 funding already designated for flood control, that should help lessen the near-term challenges water managers face.

However, we profoundly disagree with irresponsible voices that want to turn the state’s emergency into an excuse to halt building new surface storage as well as shutter existing dams.

The underlying assumption is that all dams are inherently unsafe. That is simply untrue. But for all their bluster there is an inescapable truth these dam opponents can’t shake. Countless lives have been saved and an incalculable amount of property damage has been prevented by the dams that help regulate California’s uneven water supply. That alone makes them worthwhile but the benefits don’t stop there. Dams also provide us with a dependable water supply for families and farms, inexpensive power generation and recreation opportunities.

The “no-dams-ever” crowd wants you to think we must choose between surface water and ground water. That is a false, and dangerous, choice. Dams help regulate excess flows during stormy weather allowing water managers to direct stored water to facilities that help recharge our groundwater. This connection between surface and groundwater, was recognized 100 years ago when many of our current dams were planned, in part, to help end groundwater overdraft.

If we learn one lesson from this winter’s historic storms it should be that we must do everything possible to store today’s water for use tomorrow – that includes the expansion of some existing facilities as well as new projects such as Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat. We just need to stay focused and not allow the naysayers to take advantage of the recent news to divert public attention from the real water supply and flood control needs we have.

Fish still lack the calendars they need to migrate on our schedule

Fish still lack the calendars they need to migrate on our schedule.

Federal legislation first step in fixing broken California water system

In December of 2016 bipartisan legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama.

dianne feinstein
Senator Dianne Feinstein

The new legislation requires water officials to supply as much water to farm, business and urban users as is considered environmentally safe under existing rules (biological opinions) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  It further requires that if water officials do not supply the maximum amount of water allowed, they must justify that decision by providing evidence that a reduction is necessary.

Thanks to this law, 25 million Californians – farms as well as urban users – are being supplied with water that otherwise may have been withheld.
And while we are grateful to Senator Feinstein, Congressman McCarthy and all the legislators that helped make this much-needed legislation a reality, we still have work to do to apply the common-sense approach of the new law to other parts of the water bureaucracy.

Fish don’t have calendars

kevin mccarthy
Rep. Kevin McCarthy

A year ago we discussed the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) salmon biological opinion where water deliveries from the Delta are automatically cut on January 1. The stated purpose is to protect salmon. At the time we pointed out that fish don’t have calendars yet the fishery agency is still using ham-handed methods to address declining fish populations. NMFS continues to use a robotic calendar-based approach to fish management despite ongoing real-time monitoring and sampling triggers that would more accurately gauge the protection needs for fish.

Real-time fish monitoring – not calendars – helps fish

State fishery managers are using real-time techniques to protect Delta smelt. More frequent monitoring has helped improve water deliveries without increasing risk to the fish. Why aren’t their federal counterparts using the same smart approach toward species protection? It’s not as though the federal biologists aren’t aware of real-time fishery management. In its December 30, 2015 regulatory announcement NMFS stated, “NMFS has discussed utilizing a real-time monitoring based approach with Reclamation and other parties, and remains open to developing such monitoring based real-time triggers for next year.”

Terrific. Another year has gone by with urban and agricultural water users continuing to be denied water that could legally be delivered while still protecting fish. It’s time to use all of the tools at our disposal.

CFWC in SF Chronicle: Why the Bay Area should care about Central Valley water

The State Water Resources Control Board has released its most recent version of a Water Quality Control Plan steakonaplate-web
for the San Joaquin River, and the public comment period has opened.

That may seem obscure, far away and not worth the attention of Bay Area residents, but if you like having water come out of your tap and using it to wash fresh vegetables to serve your family, it affects you. The final plan will have wide-ranging impacts on the availability and quality of your water, as well as our ability to provide locally grown food instead of having to import more and more from places that do not have the same exacting food safety standards as California.

Before you move on to the sports section, consider a few facts:

  • The Bay Area depends on water supplies that are upstream of the San Joaquin River. In an Oct. 9 Chronicle Insight piece, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission predicted “more severe and more frequent water rationing” for its 2.6 million Bay Area customers if the board’s plan is adopted.
  • The region will incur significant job loss and economic costs, predicted the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency in the same Insight commentary piece.
  • The plan could further reduce water to California farms, curtailing their ability to provide you and your family with healthy, affordable and readily available food.

Here’s where things stand:

California has rules governing how much water must stay in our rivers to benefit fish, versus being made available to people and farms. Those rules have not been updated since 1995.

We fully agree it’s time that state policy be updated. The existing, rigid and out-of-date rules rely solely on the amount of water left in the rivers to help fish populations. This has been the policy for the past 20 years and it has done absolutely nothing to slow or reverse the decline of endangered fish.

The good news is that scientific research tells us that alternatives exist that will help revive fisheries without the devastation caused by severe water supply cuts. The state’s own scientists have proposed numerous strategies to help revive struggling fish populations, and most are related to improvements in habitat and food production.

And these are not just studies. Locally driven projects have had success increasing fish populations by employing these tactics. This is important because state Department of Water Resources scientist Ted Sommer said recently that delta “smelt are starving to death.” More water won’t help that, but providing food and other habitat enhancements will.

In the scientific community, the tide is changing toward smarter, more holistic, science-based approaches.

And yet the state water board remains mired in the past. Rather than taking a fresh look at some of California’s most pressing water management issues, board staff hauled out the same failed strategy of sending more and more water out to sea — this time, enough to serve the household needs of 2 million Californians. The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

It’s not just farmers and scientists who say it’s time for a change. People throughout the state have written the board, asking that their voices be heard. Education officials are concerned about water supplies for schools, health officials are troubled by potential impacts on sanitation, Bay Area experts are alarmed by potential cuts to water supply, lost jobs and lost economic activity, and the list goes on and on.

State water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus promised that the board would “be listening for people’s best thoughts and proposals.” We hope so. The voices of education officials, health departments, water officials, farmers, cities, counties and economic development officials have all spoken about the need to find a solution that works for everyone involved.

The state water board needs to hear from you. Tell it that a science-based approach that actually provides endangered fish with food and habitat is preferable to just pouring water on the problem. We all need to share our limited water supply, and it’s time we came together to pursue smart, balanced policies that benefit urban users, farmers and the environment.


Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Statement on the upcoming release of proposed flow standards for tributaries to the San Joaquin River

Flowing River

Statement by California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade on the upcoming release of proposed flow standards for tributaries to the San Joaquin River

California officials are on the verge of releasing new water regulations

waterboards_logo_high_resthat would cause significant harm to California residents without quantifying any specific environmental benefits.

The State Water Resources Control Board is expected to release its Water Quality Control Plan on Thursday, September 15 that would set new requirements for water flowing in tributaries to the San Joaquin River.

The expected result is the direct loss of 350,000 acre-feet of water that is currently used to grow food on 100,000 acres of prime farmland. It is enough water to serve the domestic needs of 2 million Californians or produce almost 5.8 billion salads.

“If implemented, the State Water Board’s rule will have a devastating impact on drinking water, sanitation needs, food production, the economy and jobs for people stretching from the Northern San Joaquin Valley throughout the Bay Area. That’s why this regulation is opposed by schools, health departments, farmers, Latinos, cities, economic development officials and more,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

“It is unbelievable that our government would propose regulations that their own staff say will put farms out of business, reduce water supplies and have negative impacts on groundwater. Yet they can’t tell us what, if anything, this will do to protect the environment.

“The reason they cannot demonstrate benefit is because science clearly shows that decades of releasing water to the ocean has failed to halt the decline of Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. It is time to stop relying on failed strategies and move on to solutions that science tells us will help.”

State Water Resources Control Board could cost California’s agricultural economy $4.5 billion

Farmers throughout the Central Valley have been working hard and assuming huge personal risks in support of the Sacramento River Temperature Management Plan to protect salmon and still provide water to their farms.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of water is being loaned to the United States Bureau of Reclamation, National Marine Fisheries Service, water districts, communities and individual farmers to stretch every drop available to protect California’s protected salmon and valued agriculture,” said Executive Director Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition.

“Water was purchased or conserved by farmers in prior years and currently resides as an emergency supply in San Luis Reservoir,” he explained. “It is this water targeted for the ‘loan’ program and any decision by the State Water Resources Control Board that would interfere with the complex set of agreements struck since mid-May could cost the agricultural industry as much as $4.5 billion and bankrupt thousands of farmers.”

In a show of cooperation among a diverse set of irrigation and water districts, the water would be “loaned” to the Bureau of Reclamation to meet senior water supply demands in the San Joaquin Valley. In exchange, Reclamation would commit to pay back that water out of supplies stored in Lake Shasta as soon as temperature goals for winter run Chinook salmon are met.

The water is being “loaned” to fulfill multiple water supply and environmental objectives, which include the provision of a small amount of summer water supply for agriculture south of the Delta, refuge management for numerous listed terrestrial species like the Giant Garter Snake, and temperature management goals by Reclamation and the State Water Resources Control Board.

Farmers involved in the “loan” program own land on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento Valley rice farmers who fallowed land this year to make supplies available for transfers and Friant-area farmers seeking to augment a zero supply for the second year in a row.

“The State Water Resources Control Board should facilitate this complex and unprecedented collaboration and allow Reclamation to release water as soon as possible to pay back what has been borrowed to protect salmon,” Wade added.

Water agencies in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys provided estimates to Reclamation indicating the total cost of lost water and farm production if the water board does not approve the payback provision would be in the range of $3.5 billion to $4.5 billion and an additional 485,000 acres of farmland fallowing.

Westlands Water District: Straight Talk About Agriculture, Saving Water and Drainage

The Los Angeles Times recently published an intensely critical article about  Westlands Water District, which recited many of the false, misleading, or outdated claims made by some of its critics over the years. The Times’ editors refused to print an Op-Ed that the District offered in response. As a result the District has taken out a full-page advertisement in the Times to provide readers with a better understanding of the issues facing Westlands and how they are addressing them.


Statement from Don Peracchi, President of Westlands Water District

As the largest public irrigation district in the United States, Westlands Water District draws a lot of attention as well as the criticism that sometimes comes with its successes. This year, one of its most persistent critics, George Miller, is retiring after 40 years in Congress, and to mark the occasion, the Times’ recently unpacked a trunkload of his oft-repeated complaints and concerns about the District.

Some parts of this catalog identify serious issues that were long ago resolved. Others involve legitimate problems which we are still trying to address. And, like many things involving California water, a few are pure, political invention.

The article’s fundamental charge is that Westlands is simply “in the wrong place.” One might make the same complaint about dredging natural marshes in California’s Delta to grow crops in the middle of a saline estuary. Or attack the folly of installing vast farms on the desert lands of the Coachella and Imperial valleys. Or stranger still, decry building a great city on the arid plain where Los Angeles now stands. The point is, these endeavors and dozens more helped to create the prosperity of California by linking our communities together with a modern water system.

The reality is that Westlands is in the ideal place. Indeed, the Central Valley of California occupies the only Mediterranean climate in North America. Weather conditions, rich soils, and the arrival of water in the mid-1960s, have transformed the area into the most productive farming region in America. The communities that have grown there as a result, the thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend upon agricultural productivity, are not “in the wrong place.” They are at home.

The most persistent criticism of Westlands’ role in this transformation has to do with the influence of “corporate agriculture.” That may remain a concern for some parts of California, but not in Westlands or any of the other farming region served by the federal Central Valley Project. When Westlands was created in 1952, major industrial interests, including Standard Oil of California and Southern Pacific Railroad, did indeed own large tracts of land within its water service area.

But that ended in 1982 with the passage of Congressman Miller’s Reclamation Reform Act. That act redefined the qualifications for receiving water from a federal reclamation project; as a result, large corporate entities sold out, the large tracts were broken up, and today in Westlands there are nearly 2,250 landowners and the average farm size is 710 acres.  “Corporate agriculture” has lost its meaning. Any corporate structure for today’s family farmers in Westlands is likely to have a mom as its vice president and her child as its treasurer.

Water use remains a constant concern for our farmers. That’s why farmers in Westlands have invested more than $1 billion in water saving techniques and technology. Indeed, even Westlands’ harshest critics have acknowledged that the men and women who today farm in Westlands are among the most efficient users of irrigation water in the world. Westlands is a leader in water conservation, and agricultural experts from all over the world come to the District to learn how its farmers are able to accomplish so much with the limited, and often uncertain, water supplies they have to work with.

Our interest in water use efficiency has become even more important in the 22 years since Congressman Miller’s Central Valley Project Improvement Act, and a host of new regulatory restrictions redirected more than a third of the water that cities and farms used to receive from the federal project, dedicating it instead to serve a wide range of new environmental purposes. Today, on an annual basis, the federal project manages more than 1.5 million acre-feet of water for fishery flow, waterfowl habitat, to protect listed species, and other environmental uses.

In hopes of restoring reliability to the water system as a whole, Westlands is working with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other public water agencies throughout the state to support Governor Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Drainage was a major issue on the westside of the San Joaquin Valley for decades before Westlands’ creation. That is why when Congress authorized the construction of the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project, it mandated that the Bureau of Reclamation provide Westlands with both a water supply and a drainage system. Initially federal officials planned to dispose of the drain water in the Delta. But Congress stopped that project when the drain being built by Reclamation reached Kesterson, and it was Washington as well that decided to designate this new terminus for agricultural waste as a wildlife refuge.

The resulting biological catastrophe should have been predictable. In the years since, the drainage system in Westlands has been plugged, and not a drop of drain water has left Westlands after 1986. Instead, Westlands has helped to fund the development of new methods for recycling drain water. And it has taken nearly 100,000 acres of the most vulnerable farmland out of production. Some of those lands are being converted to solar power development, with the support of numerous environmental organizations.

The drainage problem, however, persists. Federal courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, have repeatedly ordered that federal officials fulfill their obligation to provide drainage. But even though Westlands farmers pay every year for drainage service, the government has done nothing to resolve the problem in Westlands. And the government is facing a mandatory injunction, which it estimates will cost more than $2.7 billion to satisfy.

To avoid that cost, the government approached Westlands to assume the responsibility to manage drainage water within its boundaries. In addition, Westlands would compensate those landowners who have been damaged by the government’s failure to act. As part of a settlement, which is not yet final, Westlands would receive some financial consideration, albeit significantly less than the cost of performing the obligations that Westlands would assume. But there is nothing secret about either the negotiations or the proposed settlement. In fact, federal officials and Westlands have briefed interested Members of Congress and non-governmental organizations on the proposal. And there is no process that is more public than the process that federal officials and Westlands will have to pursue to obtain the congressional authorization needed to implement the proposed settlement.

We remain hopeful that these ideas can still form the basis for a long-term resolution of the drainage debate. This would put an end to more than fifty years of litigation, relieve the federal taxpayers of a substantial obligation, and enable us to move forward with an environmentally sustainable approach to the problem.

Whether that happy outcome would also put an end to the criticism of Westlands, however, is not for us to say.

Don Peracchi was born in Fresno, California to second generation Northern Italian immigrants. His family has lived and worked in Central California over 100 years. He has been farming since 1982 alongside his wife, two sons and daughter in Westlands. He has been involved in career-related board positions including banking, insurance, agriculture and water. He currently is the Board President of Westlands Water District.