So here we are again, California. We’re coming through another dry year and watching the sky, hopeful that Mother Nature will give us a reprieve.
We’ve all had a bad year, but everyone needs to buckle up because some of the biggest consumer impacts are just now showing up. Farmers, many of whom received none of their promised water allotment this year were forced to grow less of the healthy, safe, diverse food supply our families rely on. Just trying to make it through the year, most farmers had to either fallow land, focus only on the highest value crops or a combination of both. Price increases and decreased availability of some foods are hitting the markets now, just as we’re all making shopping lists for all our favorite holiday foods. What will next year bring? There are already rumblings that farms will start the year with a 0% allocation of promised water.
It doesn’t have to be this bad. California has weathered multi-year droughts as far back as data has been recorded and still been able to deliver water to farms, people, and the environment.
What is preventing California from meeting water needs now?
Of course, we’re in a drought, but there is much we could be doing to help mitigate the worst of the drought impacts on people, farms and the environment.
- Our government has been slow to adjust to climate change
Climate scientists have been telling us for some time that our changed weather pattern is here to stay. We are seeing more precipitation in the form of rain instead of snow in the Sierras, drier dry years and wetter wet years. In order to adjust to these boom-or-bust water years, we must be able to store it when we get it.
If Sites Reservoir had been built, we’d have nearly one million acre-feet of water available to help reduce the impacts of this year’s drought.
But there is much more we can and should do apart from multi-year projects like Sites. Restoring flood plains and building recharge ponds is critical. It not only captures surface water, but holds it, allowing us to recharge groundwater aquifers, and also helps prevent flooding and rockslides.
We are simply not ready to adequately capture water from big storms such as in 2019 when eighteen trillion gallons of rain fell in California just in the month of February, or the atmospheric river that soaked the state in October of this year.
Making these adjustments could dramatically enhance our ability to meet California’s water needs. We just need the political will to make it happen.
- State and Federal agencies want to revert to old, outdated operating rules for 2022
Over the past decade, science has taught us that keeping our ecosystem and fish populations healthy requires us to take a holistic approach to water management. Rather than only considering the amount of water in our rivers and streams, we’ve learned that we must also improve habitat, increase food supply and control predators. And in 2019, we finally abandoned decision making based on arbitrary calendar dates and began using real-time monitoring because fish don’t check the date on their iPhones, they respond to real-time changes in the ecosystem that governs their lifecycle.
And to be clear, we discarded the outdated ways of doing things because they weren’t working. Fish continued to decline throughout the decade that the ineffective rules were in place.
We already know that abandoning the holistic approach to managing our environment won’t help fish. Reverting to an outdated system also removes important operational flexibility and delivers even less water to farmers. Proposals from officials at the Bureau of Reclamation and the State of California put food production third or fourth in line for getting water. And what’s even worse, is that farmers wouldn’t know what water they will have to work with until after planting decisions must be made.
All this new plan would do is guarantee decades more conflict and litigation.
- Voluntary Agreements are currently stalled
Our biggest hope for common sense water regulation remains the Voluntary Agreements. These agreements would allow local stakeholders, through a collaborative process, to decide how to best use the available water in their area and base all decisions on the latest science.
To make these agreements happen, already struggling farmers are willing to give up even more water because the result would be a holistic approach to protecting native species and enhancing fish and wildlife habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta and its tributaries, which would be good for all Californians.
Unfortunately, after years of negotiation and work throughout both the Brown and Newsom administrations, the state has chosen to walk away from talks with five water agencies operating projects on tributaries to the San Joaquin River. We appreciate how complicated the remaining issues are, including how to navigate water rights that precede the State’s oversight versus state and federal control. However, we hope all sides can find a way to work this out. Without the Voluntary Agreements, we will continue to limp along under a top-down regulatory system that cuts the locals out of key decisions and over the last decade has been making things steadily worse for fish, farms and people. Getting the Voluntary Agreements right is a critical step towards a more secure California water future and worth fighting for.
The bottom line is our state and federal governments have not done their jobs. Our infrastructure is old and decaying and outdated notions on how to protect endangered fish have clearly failed. Rather than embrace the future with new science, adaptive management, local decision-making, creating new water supplies and adapting to our new weather patterns they remain locked into old and destructive ways of doing things. Their only solution is to demand more and more from water users, and we simply have no more to give.
If the state and federal governments don’t change their way of doing things now, California farmers simply will not be able to provide the diverse food supply to which we are accustomed.
Maintaining a healthy, safe, local food supply must be a priority for California and the nation
Since 1980 California farmers have reduced water usage by double digits. But installing all the expensive drip irrigation in the world doesn’t help if there’s no water flowing through it.
Cutting farm water supplies too low or increasing the cost to unreasonable levels could cause more problems than it solves.
If the state continues on its path to abandon California farmers, we will all suffer.
Less water means:
- Higher costs
- More land fallowing
- Farms sold off to institutional interests
- Driving out family-owned operations
All of which is the opposite of what Californians say they want.
Whatever farms remain will have no choice but to plant crops that provide the highest return and those are usually permanent crops. Tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, melons, sweet corn and much of the rest of California’s diverse seasonal produce will decline, leaving consumers holding the bag with higher prices and more imports from countries that don’t have the same food and worker safety laws that we have in California.
The farmers who grow our food are our neighbors. As Californians, they care about their communities and the environment. And the products they grow meet the strictest food and worker safety standards anywhere in the world. Much of the food grown on California farms can’t be replaced by trying to increase production in other areas of the country. Our unique soil and climate make California the most productive farmland in the U.S., and that makes our food production a national security issue. Squeezing out California food production will result in less availability and higher prices at the grocery store and imported food often from countries that have less stringent safety standards than we do here at home.
You cannot just move California food production to other states.
Most other states face more significant weather extremes, higher altitudes, oppressive humidity, and in some cases, too much water, which limits their ability to grow the same kinds of crops in the quantities that come from California.
For example, California grows 30 times more processing tomatoes than the No. 2 state, Indiana, because we’re more efficient food producers. The same is true for many other foods, including those from the No. 2 states in the chart to the left. And chemical inputs are less in California because diseases, mildew, and other pests are less prevalent compared to other states.
Here’s the link to the full AFBF: https://www.fb.org/market-intel/reduced-crop-yields-orchard-removals-and-herd-sell-offs-new-afbf-survey-res
Robustly Full to Empty Reservoirs
In two years, California’s State reservoirs have gone from beginning water 2020 “robustly” full, with historic releases of surplus potential supply and the memory of dangerous risks of flooding associated with the same storms that damaged Oroville Dam not far behind us, to devastating curtailments in August of 2021.
Largest surface water cut in California History
On August 3, the State Water Resources Control Board completely eliminated 2021’s surface water supplies for farms in much of the state.
This map shows the historically unprecedented surface water cuts that are affecting California agriculture, and America’s tables this year.
Fewer crops have been planted due to the drought and these additional cuts by the Water Board could affect the upcoming harvest of crops still in the ground. It has been two short years since the state’s reservoirs were largely full, yet supplies today are extremely low.
While criticisms of California’s water rights are common during droughts among those looking to reshuffle the deck, they shouldn’t ignore our state and federal leaders’ failure to meaningfully prepare for this drought. Both history and science tell us that California’s weather patterns inevitably shift from wet to dry, and back again. Scientific experts insist it will become more frequent as a result of our changing climate. Investing in smart, adaptive water management, growing our water supplies, and finding collaborative, science-based approaches are prudent steps as we prepare for California’s future.
Substantial new state and federal investments in our water supply infrastructure are needed to prevent future water shortages.
Info Graph – What can the 2015 drought tell us about the impacts of a drought in 2021?
Taking a look back at a similar water year can help us understand what might be in store for us through the rest of this year and possibly beyond.
California is in a critically dry year, the same as in 2015. Water will be extremely tight for thousands of farmers around the state, and many of them have already received notice that their water supplies are being cut by up to 95 percent.
In 2015, water supply cuts of that magnitude led to over half a million acres of land taken out of production. Had there been sufficient water supplies in 2015, the amount of land that was fallowed could have produced:
- 8.6 billion heads of lettuce, or
- 594 million cartons of melons, or
- 54 million tons of grapes, or
- 27 million tons of tomatoes.
Instead, because no water was available, those fields produced nothing but weeds.
California is the No. 1 farm state in the nation with tens of thousands of agricultural jobs, with wages at all income levels covering all 58 counties. When farms aren’t growing food for people, it affects jobs, personal income, and their quality of life. In addition, farm-related jobs contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to state and local tax revenue which provide services local communities value, like police, firefighters and teachers.
In 2015, a total of 21,000 jobs were lost with an economic impact of $2.7 billion across the state.
Preparing for Drought
Farmers have been preparing for another drought and have invested heavily in water use efficiency projects, including drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation systems, soil moisture monitoring, and computerized irrigation controllers. But the savings achieved by those investments haven’t been enough to avoid wide-scale land fallowing due to the massive water supply shortages farmers are experiencing again this year.
Info Graph – Long Term Impacts on California From Water Supply Cuts
Looking long-term, continuing water shortages will have a devastating effect not only on California farms but also on the farm related jobs throughout our economy.
The Blueprint Economic Impact Report, available HERE, indicates that over the next 30 years, water supply cuts will lead to the permanent loss of 1 million acres of productive farmland.
Fewer healthy foods will be available from California farms. The report estimates that California will permanently lose:
- 86,000 acres of vegetables,
- 130,000 acres of fruit-producing trees,
- 129,000 acres of wine and table grapes,
- 327,000 acres of nuts, and much more.
These reductions translate into the permanent loss of 85,000 jobs, half of which are off the farm, such as food processing, transportation, wholesale, retail, and ports. They also mean the permanent loss of over $535 million in tax revenue which, again, is used to provide the services local communities value, like police, firefighters and teachers.
Actions, including better flood management for groundwater recharge, improved conveyance to move water to potential groundwater banking areas, new and enlarged storage projects, and regulatory reform designed to improve in-stream flows for ecosystem benefits while protecting agricultural water supplies can help minimize the effects described above. Federal investments toward improving water supply infrastructure is essential to providing a secure water future to sustain the nation’s food supply, meet urban and suburban needs, and provide for a healthy environment throughout California.
Without Fixing Broken System Californians Could Suffer Permanent Drought
On the heels of yet another storm that brought us within .75 inches of breaking the all-time record wet year, the US Bureau of Reclamation announced 100 percent deliveries for water users south of the delta. Coming so late in the year, this usually joyful news is a bittersweet reminder of how broken California’s water system has become. Reservoirs have been essentially full since January, but with more than 15 federal, state and local agencies having jurisdictions over California water policy, the announcement was delayed until now, long after planting decisions have been made for the season.
We Are Ready to Act
For many long years, new water projects have been debated and delayed that could provide California with the water it needs. All the scientific studies have been done and the projects are ready to go. But the broken system prevents forward movement.
In 2014, voters authorized a water bond to end the delays and get started on water supply and storage projects that can meet our future needs. Two of those projects- Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat Reservoir will not only help us meet the water supply needs of California, but will help improve ecosystem health as well. Sites Reservoir alone would yield enough water to serve almost 3 million people for a year. Temperance Flat Reservoir would add water for 1 million people or enough to grow 3 billion salads. Both projects would help refill depleted ground water supplies.
The Time to Invest is Now
All Californians want to celebrate the end of the drought and a return to normalcy, but unless we fix our broken water system California’s new normal is promising to be perpetual scarcity, shortage, fear, and doubt. If left unchanged the only thing our broken system will yield is permanent drought for all Californians. The time to invest in our future is now.
Snow Survey Results Off the Charts- Must Improve Water Supplies
When state snow surveyors visited the Sierra Nevada today, they found a snowpack well above average for the date, and the biggest in more than 20 years. California agricultural organizations say they hope that translates into improved water supplies for the state’s farmers and ranchers.
California Snow Survey Results: 173% of Normal, Water Supply Improvements Should Correlate
“You would think that a snowpack in the range of 175 percent of average would assure plentiful water supplies, but that link has long ago been severed,” said Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association.
“Wildlife agencies often hold the key to determining how much water is available, because endangered-species laws reserve
water for protected fish.”
WIIN Act Can Help Maximize the Benefits of California Storms in 2017 and Beyond.
Nassif noted the passage of federal legislation called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act,
which included short-term provisions to increase flexibility of the state’s water system.
“Among its provisions, the WIIN Act allows water agencies to capture more water during winter storms and requires them to maximize supplies consistent with law. This winter will be a good test of how agencies adhere to that law,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Proposition 1 Water Bond Reservoirs Would Save Storm Water for Families, Farms, and Environment
The WIIN Act also invests in California water storage and desalination projects, complementing the investments California voters made when they passed the Proposition 1 water bond in 2014.
“We’ve had to let too much water run out to sea this winter, because we didn’t have any place to store it,” said Bill Diedrich, president of the California Farm Water Coalition. “We should be doing everything we can to save today’s rain and snow for use tomorrow.”
The California Water Commission will decide later this year on water projects to be funded through the bond.
“We will continue to urge the commission to put that money to work as quickly as possible to build new storage facilities that can capture more water during future winters such as we’ve seen in 2017,” Diedrich said.
UC Davis drought report
On August 15 the Center for Watershed Sciences released a UC Davis drought report titled “Economic Analysis of the 2016 California Drought on Agriculture.” The report was a follow-on to reports commissioned by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and released previously in 2014 and 2015.
Of note in the 2016 report was a statement that approximately 77,000 acres were fallowed this year, which raised questions among many agricultural industry leaders who were aware of fallowing estimates in the range of several hundred thousand acres. CFWC checked with CDFA as well as with researchers at UC Davis to express concerns over the seemingly low fallowing estimates. That communication resulted in the production of an update clarifying the numbers reported in the August 15 report.
Drought accounts for just 21% of expected fallowing
By September 30 according to the update, Central Valley land fallowing is expected to be approximately 370,000 acres, of which 77,000 acres can be attributed to the drought. The remaining 293,000 would be from other factors, including the regulatory restrictions that have delivered a 5 percent water supply to South of Delta CVP contractors and put tremendous pressure on other CVP and State Water Project contractors.
Update clarifies “drought” fallowing
The update, released September 1 and titled, “Estimates of Irrigated Cropland Idled due to the 2016 California Drought: Clarifications and Supplemental Information,” discussed the differences between drought-related land fallowing and the much greater numbers of fallowed acreage due to other factors, including ESA-related regulatory restrictions on water supplies.
From the report: “… our estimates specifically and solely relate to what was caused by the lack of normal precipitation and other climatic events in 2016, building on conditions as we entered the 2016 production season. Crop rotation needs, market conditions, regulatory cutbacks to protect fish and habitat all affect land idling in addition to impacts of water scarcity due to drought.
Most fallowing caused by factors other than drought
It went on to say, “Pumping restrictions in the Delta to prevent reverse flows and operations of the San Luis Reservoir have also affected quantity and timing of water to agricultural users south of the Delta. The combination of these effects contributed to the additional fallowing on top of drought related fallowing. Thus a number of regulatory issues, not directly related to the drought of 2016, have contributed to idled land observed in the Central Valley in 2016.”
Statement by Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition on the UC Davis Drought Report
“A recent report by UC Davis dramatically understates the amount of California farm land taken out of production this year. Their study only measures the impact of the actual drought – not other factors.
“While roughly 77,000 acres remain idle due to the drought an additional 293,000 acres are fallowed due to rigid bureaucratic reliance on water management practices that we know for a fact have failed to produce their intended results.
“Most of California’s major reservoirs are relatively full this year, but the government agencies that control them stubbornly refuse to release much of that water to cities and farms. Instead, they insist on flushing it out to sea. Decades of this practice have completely failed to save the Delta smelt or winter run Chinook salmon. And yet, this year alone, California has flushed over 1 million acre-feet of water to the ocean, enough to provide 6 million domestic users with water for a year or grow almost 17 billion salads.
“We can survive the drought, but can we survive government agencies that stubbornly ignore good science and common sense?”
# # #
Mike Wade • 916-391-5030 (office) • firstname.lastname@example.org
Today’s announcement of a 5 percent allocation for Central Valley Project water users south of the Delta is another blow to farmers, rural communities and consumers who buy California farm products.
If last year is any indication a number of specialty crops grown on the San Joaquin Valley’s Westside will once again be on the chopping block. In 2015 Westside acreage planted to tomatoes and garlic fell 9 percent and 17 percent, respectively. The combined spring and fall season lettuce acreage was hit even harder with a 53 percent decrease because of water shortages. This year’s dismal water allocation, despite near normal rain and snowfall, is an indication of how inefficiently the federal fishery agencies are managing segments of California’s water system.
“If federal water allocations continue at these disastrous levels, more of the food that consumers buy will be grown on foreign soil that does not have the food safety and security requirements of California-grown food,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.
Eastside farmers in the Central Valley Project’s Friant system are receiving just 30 percent of their water this year. A portion of the Friant supply is being used to fulfill other contract obligations that the federal government is unable to meet because of restrictive water management decisions. In the last two years an estimated 25,000 acres of mature citrus trees, or almost 10 percent of the state’s production area, were removed in response to water shortages. California produces 85 percent of the nation’s fresh citrus.
Federal fishery agencies are restricting water deliveries to large swaths of California farmland and urban communities under the guise of protecting threatened and endangered Delta smelt and Chinook salmon. Despite 20 years of the same kind of pumping restrictions, fish populations are continuing to decline and the agencies have been unable to point to any hard science that justifies those decisions.
Above normal winter rains in Northern California have helped fill the state’s largest reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, to above 85 percent of capacity and over 100 percent of year-to-date average. Urban communities are now making decisions to relax watering restrictions that were put in place during the drought.
In contrast to today’s disappointing federal announcement, California’s State Water project is expected to deliver 45 percent of requested water allocations. The much lower federal allocation flies in the face of the fact that the federal project’s Lake Shasta currently holds 31 percent more water, or a million acre-feet more than the State project’s Lake Oroville.
NRDC’s “Drought Report Card” Gets an “Incomplete”
NRDC’s “Drought Report Card” gets an “incomplete” for using a flawed report as the basis of its poor grade for agriculture. NRDC’s 2014 report, “The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply: Efficiency, Reuse, and Stormwater,” cowritten with the Pacific Institute, was used as the basis for its recent “report card.”
Much of the agricultural section of its 2014 report is actually based on a 2009 Pacific Institute Report. At the time, the Pacific Institute estimated that 3.4 million acre-feet of water savings were attainable through improved irrigation scheduling. That number was based on a 1997 DWR survey of just 55 farmers who claimed a 13 percent savings in applied water by incorporating CIMIS data into irrigation scheduling. The Pacific Institute also assumed back in the 2009 report that only 20 percent of farmers were using some sort of irrigation scheduling, so it applied the 13 percent savings to the remaining 80 percent in each of California’s hydrologic basins to arrive at its 3.4 MAF number. That’s quite a stretch.
A much better benchmark for agricultural water savings took place a year later. In 2010 the Agricultural Water ManagementCouncil also surveyed farmers about water use efficiency. The AWMC survey included 414 farmers statewide and found that 57 percent used CIMIS data or an irrigation consultant to schedule their irrigation.
Yet today, 15 years after DWR’s small survey of 55 farmers, we see reports like this using the same tired and speculative numbers to justify criticism of agricultural water use efficiency.
NRDC and the Pacific Institute were happy to cite estimates from DWR in a 2013 report that said applied water might be higher in agriculture than previously thought (California Simulation of Evapotranspiration of Applied Water and Agricultural Energy Use in California PDF). At the same time they ignored DWR’s assessment elsewhere in the report about evolving cropping patterns in California toward higher-value crops and high-efficiency irrigation. DWR stated, “As a result of these trends in irrigation methods, the adoption and usage of ET information for scheduling has increased considerably.
At the same time they ignored DWR’s assessment elsewhere in the report about evolving cropping patterns in California toward higher-value crops and high-efficiency irrigation. DWR stated, “As a result of these trends in irrigation methods, the adoption and usage of ET information for scheduling has increased considerably.
The CalFed Bay-Delta Program assessment, mentioned in the 2014 NRDC/Pacific Institute report, uses DWR’s “Projection Level 6” (PL-6), or the maximum possible investment in water use efficiency to attain 4.3 million acre-feet in water savings. DWR’s estimated cost for that was $1.6 billion per year.
In the 2009 California Water Plan Update, DWR stated, “Projection Level 6 is “unrealistic” and “impractical.” The Department went on to say, “Projection Level 6 represents a perfect irrigation system and management performance not attainable in production agriculture.” The CalFed Bay-Delta Program’s 2006 Comprehensive Evaluation also said that Projection Level 6 “…was intended to serve as a reference point, or bookend, to evaluate other projection levels and should not be part of the planning document.”
The CalFed Bay-Delta Program’s 2006 Comprehensive Evaluation also said that Projection Level 6 “…was intended to serve as a reference point, or bookend, to evaluate other projection levels and should not be part of the planning document.”
Yet the Pacific Institute’s reported Ag Water Conservation and Efficiency Potential takes CalFed’s PL-6 even further and applies a 100 percent efficiency level, rather than CalFed’s more realistic 70 percent level. Only by stretching the CalFed numbers and applying them to 100 percent of California’s agricultural land are they able to arrive at their grossly inflated 6.6 MAF estimate of conservation potential that NRDC used as the basis for its “report card.”
Rather than stretching the facts about agricultural water use, let’s let the public decide if water for food and fiber is a good deal.