Drought Can Be Managed – Lack of Preparation and Common Sense Cannot

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.

A sad reality of drought, many multigenerational family businesses have closed because they were unable to make ends meet under persisting conditions. A Utah dairy farmer somberly reported, “I’ve sold my dairy animals after five generations of dairying. I’m unable to grow my own feed, super-high feed costs and lowering milk prices forced me out of the business.” Similarly, a California walnut producer wrote, “We sold the family farm due primarily to severe reduction in walnut prices and stress from water issues. My husband was a fourth-generation farmer.”

Source: 2021 American Farm Bureau Federation Survey

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.

“Average yields for the 2021 harvest season are expected to be 42% lower than in 2020”

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.

Decorative Image. Image is of dead and living orchards adjacent.

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

Newsom on California Water Future & Voluntary Agreements

Newsom on California Water Future

On January 29, 2020 Governor Newsom spoke on the topics of energy, wildfires and climate change to an audience with PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California.) He was asked about his strategy for California water.

These are real human beings whose lives are being torn asunder because of the scarcity of water.

…That’s why I think we can do more with flexibility, working together.

You’re not bringing that back by getting in seven years of lawsuits where nothing gets done. That’s why I’m pursuing voluntary agreements… 

When we talk about fallowing land, that is real people, real lives, and I have to look them in the eyes. 

It may be an intellectual thing for some who are sitting on the coast, with all due respect, reading the newspaper and talking about the aggregate and saying “well our economy is doing fine”- but what about that poor damn mother that literally can’t take care of that kid because they can’t get that work anymore?

You don’t do that to someone. You don’t destroy that community… …We have got to be held accountable.

I want everyone to calm down. …Just give us a chance.

I have one of the best EPA directors we have ever had. He’s one of the great champions of the environment. I have one of the best water folk… Wade Crowfoot and the team he’s assembled- These are real, great human beings that care deeply about the environment, and they think it’s right to reach out to ag and work with these guys.

The world is changing – We have to change with it – flexibility. Putting the old binaries aside; getting off our high horse; recognizing that we need each other. 

There’s no leak on your side of our boat, we need each other.

Watch the full video of Governor Newsom at PPIC on YouTube: LINK

Skip to his comments on water: LINK









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.

Countdown: 1 Day to Drought

Countdown: 1 Day to Droughthourglass with dripping water close-up

On Wednesday, the State Water Board will vote to remove enough water from the system to irrigate over 200,000 acres of farmland or meet the domestic needs of 2 million people every year. If approved, this action will lead to one of the most predictable droughts California has ever faced.

Is a Compromise Still Possible?

UPDATE: Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom sent a letter late on November 6th requesting the State Water Board postpone action on the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan until December 12, 2018. View the Letter HERE.

Until the Board votes, it’s not too late.

Farmers, irrigation districts, large cities, small towns, schools, sanitation officials, economic development agencies, large industries, small business owners and millions of Californians who have implored the Board to reconsider are ready to sit down today, as we have been for years, and work out a compromise plan.

And we come armed with up-to-date science, real world data showing demonstrable results and a willingness to work for a sustainable solution that serves all Californians. The alternative serves no one and the devastation it would cause has been well documented – $3.1 billion in lost economic activity, according to local experts, thousands of jobs gone, land fallowed, loss of water to urban and disadvantaged rural communities alike, negative impacts on schools, local sanitation, and more.

Insufficient water means lost crop production.

 It’s also been well documented that decades of following this same water-only policy has had no effect – fish have continued to decline. And now, the benefits of trying another, more holistic approach are also documented.

A California future that includes healthy rivers and fish as well as jobs, fresh local produce and water for schools, businesses and homes is in front of us if the Board will allow it.

Countdown: 2 Days to Drought

Countdown: 2 Days to Droughthourglass with dripping water close-up

On Wednesday, the State Water Board will vote to remove enough water from the system to irrigate over 200,000 acres of farmland or meet the annual domestic needs of 2 million people every year. If approved, this action will lead to one of the most preventable droughts California has faced.

How Will This Impact Our Food Supply?

Simply put, less water for farms will mean less of the fresh, local produce our families depend on.

California farmers have proven incredibly resilient in drought situations, employing the latest technology to do more with less. However, while you can grow food with less water you can’t grow it with no water.

In conjunction with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, as much as 1 million acres statewide may be fallowed due to the combined impact of these two overlapping regulations. Just ONE acre of land can yield almost 100,000 pounds of tomatoes or 36,000 heads of lettuce. Imagine the impact on California-grown tomatoes, lettuce, oranges, avocadoes, apples, strawberries, grapes, almonds, peaches and more if we have one MILLION acres less to grow our food? You can’t support California’s world-class orchards without reliable water supplies from year to year. The Water Board’s answer? Grow different crops. But farmers grow the crops people want, not the ones the State Water Board’s policy dictates.

U.S. orchard land.

Will there be less produce available, higher prices, fruits and vegetables that are less fresh because they must be shipped in, or all three? It’s hard to know exactly at this point, but the impacts for California consumers will be measurable and will not be limited to freshness and availability.

Our food has to come from somewhere, right? So, if we have less California produce available, then what? If we decrease our capacity at home, we put the safety and reliability of our fresh food supply in the hands of other countries that do not grow food under the same strict regulations that we follow in California.

In addition, our environment will suffer. Importing food to replace what we don’t grow at home means more ships, moretrucks, and more pollution.

There’s still time to adopt compromise plans supported by water districts, scientists, education officials, health departments, farmers, farm workers, cities, economic development officials and others ready to implement solutions that science tells us will help.

Countdown: 4 Days to Drought

Countdown: 4 Days to Drought

hourglass with dripping water close-up

On Wednesday, the State Water Board will vote to redirect enough water in the system to irrigate over 200,000 acres of farmland or meet the annual domestic needs of 2 million people every year. If approved, this action will lead to one of the most preventable droughts California has ever faced.


Who will Benefit?

Sadly, no one. The Board claims that withholding this water from the human population will help fish. However, they are basing their assumptions on outdated science.

Water districts and farmers working with conservationists, government agencies and others have spent millions in the past decades studying the ecosystems of our rivers and ways to make them healthier. The resulting science has revealed a more complete vision of the problem and a holistic approach to solving it. There is growing agreement among scientists that fish need more than water to survive and thrive. We need to restore habitat, increase food supply and decrease the number of predators.  In addition, we’ve learned that more important than the amount of water in the system is the timing of adding water to the system. These “functional flows” release water when, where and how it makes sense from a biological perspective.

Decades of following the water-only approach favored by the Board has had no effect – fish have continued to decline. And now, the benefits of moving away from exclusively focusing on the amount of water in the river and towards a more comprehensive approach have been documented and this strategy is now supported by our state’s most prominent water experts.

 “Frankly, I think we have to get away from this notion of trying to do the math based on this much water for this many fish. That just doesn’t work. . . there is an argument that [more water] won’t make a significant enough difference unless you deal with all the other problems.”

Michael George, Delta Watermaster

“Large-scale habitat improvements in the south and central delta are key to improving salmon survival. Higher flows alone won’t be successful.”

Peter Moyle, Professor Emeritus, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology and
associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis

“Simply increasing river flow represents a “sort of a scientific laziness related to the ‘fish-gotta-swim’ theory of environmental flows, like the more water you give them, the more of them there are going to be to swim.”

Jay Lund, Director, Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis

“Is the goal more water or is the goal more fish? If it’s about fish, there are better solutions.”

Doug Demko, President of Fishbio, environmental consulting firm

And Doug is correct – there are better ways. The Board’s own estimates say that the $100 million in annual community costs (local experts say the cost will be much more) will produce an additional 4,139 salmon.  That’s almost $25,000 per fish. Science shows us we can do better with less devastation.

There’s still time to adopt compromise plans supported by water districts, scientists, education officials, health departments, farmers, farm workers, cities, economic development officials and others ready to implement solutions that science tells us will help.

Water: Time for a Fresh Look at What Works, What Doesn’t and What to Do About It

Water: Time for a Fresh Look at What Works, What Doesn’t and What to Do About It

For decades, California has been stuck in a Groundhog-Day-like water debate that pits fish and the environment against humans, farms and other water needs. Presented as a zero-sum game, we are told it is necessary for one set of water-users to lose in order for another to win. As the argument goes, if farms and cities are getting the water promised to them, fish and the environment must suffer.

Having long rejected the winners and losers approach to water we applaud the current effort by the Bureau of Reclamation to review why, when, and where California’s two main water delivery systems – the Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP) – allocate our water.

We already know that over the last two decades, the cutbacks in promised water deliveries by the Central Valley Project, as well as the instability of those deliveries, has taken an undeniable human and economic toll on farms and the communities that depend on them for survival. We also know that water diverted for the purpose of supporting struggling fish populations has totally failed to impact fish decline after 20-plus years of this failed approach. In summary, the one thing we know for sure is that the current system is not working for anyone.

The good news is that science has not been sitting still even if the policy has. Multiple studies and projects show us that fish are struggling for a multitude of reasons, many of which are correctible. Reducing the impact of non-native predators, improving habitat, access to food and other measures, are helping us find solutions that work for water supply, farms and the environment. One project underway with partners that span an area from the northern Sacramento Valley south through the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California is reconnecting the fish-food-rich floodplains with rivers, creating a win-win situation for fish, farms and people. Numerous additional projects on smaller scales are underway across the state. Collaborating on even more efforts will help us make even greater strides.

Another flaw in the current policy is that it has long ignored the environmental benefits of delivering allocated CVP water. The San Joaquin Valley is home to the largest contiguous freshwater wetlands remaining in California and the second largest contiguous wetlands in the Continental United States. These wetlands are home to millions of waterfowl, Tule elk, turtles, cranes, deer, and other species that cannot survive without CVP water.

The water we need for healthy communities, farms and the environment is there, it’s the system that is broken. For example, in 2016 Reclamation announced a five percent allocation for South of Delta CVP Water Service Contractors despite a near normal water year. In addition to a dismal five percent allocation these water users were not provided access to their water until far too late in the season for it to be of any benefit for the 2016 growing season.

It is our hope that this long overdue review process will help us more effectively meet our environmental goals and at the same time improve the supply and reliability of the CVP’s contracted water supply.



GUEST BLOG: Australia’s Water Management Controversy

Water Policy Manager
New South Wales Irrigators’ Council

The old adage “when it rains, it pours” seems quite apt in the context of Australia’s recent water woes.

What started with a mainstream news report aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in late July about alleged water theft of Federal environmental water in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and purported maladministration by State Governments, soon forced both the Federal and State Governments to initiate a raft of inquiries and reviews into legislative, policy and practical implementation of compliance in water management across the Murray-Darling Basin.

None of the reports so far have been able to provide conclusive evidence of any water theft by irrigators anywhere within the Murray-Darling Basin, however the report highlights how the Australian water management and compliance system are not beyond reproach.

What the reports so far have shown is that there are some key shortfalls in the State Government’s administration of water resources:

  • The State Government has mismanaged fees paid by irrigators that were intended to support water delivery oversight, which in turn undermined the public’s confidence in the water management system.
  • The State Government has failed to conduct meter readings and repairs despite ongoing calls for action from irrigators and other water licence holders in the state.
  • The State Government has chosen to restructure the state water department at a critical point in the Basin Plan implementation without providing sufficient support and leadership to guide the transition.
  • The State Government has chosen to authorise the State water utility to conduct meter reading and compliance activities despite the conflict of interest due to the utility’s dual water supply and water compliance functions. It is clearly a case of judge, jury and executioner all being lumped into one office.

Irrigators across the state have called on the State Government to immediately fulfil its obligations to improve its management of the established compliance measures and reset the state water extraction compliance system in order to re-establish confidence in the system – by both irrigators and the general public.

The fact is that the original news report certainly (unfairly) damaged the reputation of the Australian irrigation industry and has provided greater leverage for the environmental lobby to demand a greater share of Australia’s water resources and more environmental friendly water management regulation. However, despite this very obvious agenda and the ongoing attacks on the irrigation industry, it is clear that failings at the State Government have led to unfair public criticism of irrigators who, through no fault of their own, were blamed for illegal water diversions that remain unproven.

Salmon can thrive without State’s unimpaired flow plan

Peter Fimrite’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2AOyfBh) brings a positive message about higher numbers of this year’s Fall run Chinook salmon on the Mokelumne River. According to Fimrite, near record numbers of fish have returned, thanks to efforts behind stream bed and habitat improvements.

Mokelumne River

Interestingly, this success has been achieved without a massive increase in flows on the river, such as the plan proposed by the State Water Resources Control Board for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and Sacramento rivers. Can there be any better evidence that habitat improvements are a better solution than flushing a lot of water down a river under the assumption that more water equals more fish?

The returning salmon are three years old. That means they started their journey as youngsters in 2014, a critically dry year and right in the middle of the driest period in California history. How do you explain the disconnect between big salmon numbers and low river flows? Maybe it’s not the amount of water so much as it is the quality of habitat the salmon have in the river.

Managing water under California’s broken water system

Managing water under California’s broken water system

California’s farm water suppliers don’t shy away from hard work. They never have-but our broken water system (graphic) continues to erode their ability to do the most important part of their job- managing and delivering the water used to grow the food and fiber we all depend on.

With the ever-escalating demand of more than 15 different overlapping agencies that require farm water suppliers to meet perpetually-changing regulatory processes, it’s little wonder that despite bountiful water provided by nature- scarcity and uncertainty continue to burden farms, rural communities, and even our cities.

A recent Sacramento Bee Editorial underscored the complexity of managing water under California’s broken system, claiming that not filing a form with the Department of Water Resources (DWR) has left Californians in the dark about where and how the water used to grow our food and fiber is delivered.

This deceptively simple form represents many hours of labor to complete- and it represents only one small element of the complex network of data reporting that farm water suppliers must complete and submit to various State, federal and regional agencies on a regular basis- each using different methods, timelines, and procedures.

The Bee’s fixation is the product of AB 1404, a bill passed in 2007 that directed DWR to develop a farm gate delivery form- but was promptly followed by the vastly more complex Water Conservation Act of 2009.

This Act, which includes the more specific legislative bill SBx7-7, instructed DWR to consult with engineers, academics and other experts to develop a comprehensive approach to implementing and reporting on water management for farm water suppliers.

SBx7-7 included comprehensive Water Management Planning protocols and a set of Efficient Water Management Practices, and mandated the development and implementation of a water measurement regulation, but also instructed DWR to work with more than five different State agencies to build a Standardized Reporting Portal to collect data, including the AB1404 form.

Over the past 10 years, farm water delivery reporting and management has changed and evolved. The goal should be to settle on a system that provides the people of California with useful information to assess how our water resources are being managed. Continuing to rely on a 10 year-old reporting process is not an efficient way to accomplish that goal.