Salmon need help in California, but what kind?

Salmon need help in California, but what kind?

Salmon need help in California. Unfortunately, L.A. Times opinion writer, Michael Hiltzik, isn’t doing them any favors by furthering the notion that more water in the Delta’s sterile waterways is the solution.

Hiltzik completely ignores the economic consequences that have devastated San Joaquin Valley farms, farmworkers, and communities as a result of water supply cuts that were designed to help endangered salmon and Delta smelt. These practices have failed to achieve their intended benefit- restoring fish populations- and instead have wreaked havoc on a large part of one of California’s prime food-producing regions.

Water doesn’t fix poor ocean conditions, predators or habitat

There is little evidence backing the claim that more water flowing in the river will help restore salmon populations. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the bigger issues have been poor ocean conditions, the loss of salmon rearing habitat, channelized waterways, and non-native predators.

In addition to addressing all of these factors, another strategy that has been proven helpful is the use of “functional flows,” which utilize timing and more moderate amounts of water to meet the specific needs of fish. In the case of the Butte Creek Salmon Recovery project, functional flows plus improvements in habitat and better access to the upper reaches of Butte Creek achieved far more than simply pouring more water down the river. The project effectively increased the number of returning salmon from about 100 spring run Chinook per year in the mid-1990s to as many as 20,000 in just a few short years. And it was done without devastating impacts on farms and communities.

We should all work together on scientific approaches that help fish thrive without devastating farms, farmworkers, and communities

Hiltzik and California’s commercial salmon fleet would do more to help their cause if they supported ongoing, more scientific approaches to salmon restoration. Butte Creek is just one example of successful science-based approaches undertaken by a progressive partnership that included Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley farmers, environmental groups, California urban water agencies, the Department of Interior, and State Department of Fish and Game. Other efforts underway include projects where farmers use harvested fields to mimic flood plains with broad support from researchers, community leaders, farmers, and conservationists. These projects help build the food chain from the bottom up by taking advantage of the natural process that supports the growth of phytoplankton, the foundation of the food web. Salmon that are allowed to linger in managed farm fields grow faster, stronger and are more vigorous than fish left to forage for scant food supplies in the levee-constrained Sacramento River. And these are just a few of the collaborative efforts around that state that are showing us how to help fish thrive.

Sadly, while one-sided advocates like Hiltzik push for the same old failed strategies, salmon, and the commercial fishermen who depend on them for their livelihoods, will fare no better because their supporters are focusing on what experts say is “lazy science” and is an oversimplification of a complex issue.

Solving the many issues affecting the viability of the salmon industry is complex, but doggedly pursuing wasteful water policy won’t fix the plight of commercial salmon fishermen. Merely seeking to shift blame and avoid the hard work of establishing functional flows, habitat restoration, food web development, predation controls, and discharge reduction is a proven path to failure. 

The solution to pollution is not, in fact, dilution.

The solution to pollution is not, in fact, dilution.

While a catchy phrase, scientific and other experts generally agree that the “solution to pollution is dilution” approach leaves much to be desired. Relying on dilution to solve the Delta’s water quality problems is at best wasteful of this precious resource, and at worst destructive to the lives of millions of Californians.

Unlike the State Water Board, California’s environmental and water experts are River at sunsetfollowing the science and looking at the bigger picture question: How do we maintain the health of today’s Delta which has obviously changed since the days of the Gold Rush.  Yes, the Delta has been fundamentally altered over the years with the introduction of new species, inevitable population growth and more. But experts note that the Delta as it exists today, may in fact be an ecosystem in balance. Introduced species like bass have adopted specific roles in the ecosystem, while other species have adapted and filled other ecosystem niches as changes to water quality, food webs, and habitat have evolved.

In order to keep today’s Delta healthy, ecosystem experts generally recommend holistic strategies instead of single-tool approaches like flushing the Delta with additional water. These holistic strategies address many factors, like habitat loss, predation, and water quality as delicately balanced parts of an entire working network, instead of simply isolated components.

Californians are being asked to make good water management a way of life. We are being asked to be adaptive and seek flexible, creative approaches to how we use water at home, at our jobs, and on our farms. We are being asked to be reasonable with the water we use, to be good stewards, to avoid waste, and to limit our water use to what is reasonably required.

Californians have risen to those challenges and we should expect no less of California’s State Water Resources Control Board.

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.



Smart Policy- Real Solutions

California’s way of life is sustained by our flowing water. From farm fields and grocery store shelves, to city streets- moving water affects us all. Modern water management in the State focuses on two principles- moving water from places and times of abundance to places and times of need efficiently, and balancing the needs of all beneficial water uses. 
California’s water managers are looking for ways to meet all of those needs responsibly. California can have both a healthy environment, and vibrant farms and communities. They are not only looking at ways to capture new surface water, to expand conservation and efficiency, or to safely move existing excess surface water to the places and people in need- but also how to achieve those goals holistically. 
For example, in the San Joaquin Valley, opportunities exist to turn floodwaters into drought supply, to recharge groundwater, and to meet the needs of all users- human and environmental. It will take upgrading not only infrastructure, but also policy, but the alternative is a poor option for the local communities and for California.
Check out this recent Fact Sheet from Friant Water Authority, explaining the options confronting their community.
Our state’s future depends on sound policies that allow us to move water in smart ways. Responsible policies that protect California’s communities and economy, that preserve and recharge water supplies, and hold all water users accountable for efficient management and beneficial use.

A deep dive into the shallow end

California Magazine, the publication of the UC Berkeley Alumni Association, recently published an article by Glen Martin on California water issues. Titled, A Deep Dive Into California’s Recurring Drought Problem, the article contains a number of recommendations that, if implemented, would devastate large parts of California’s economy, without a significant improvement in California’s available water supply. A generously quoted individual, Dr. Richard Walker, suggests a few things that may make sense in macro economics but fail to address the consequences of large-scale farmland retirement.

Walker may be an expert in geology, according to the article, but he seems to know little about agriculture and even less about the impacts of retiring vast swaths of productive farmland. He is quoted as saying that 9 million acres of impaired farmland are cultivated on the Westside. There aren’t 9 million acres currently irrigated in all of California. Furthermore, his glib assertion that retiring this supposedly “crappy” farmland would solve California’s water problems is not only ridiculous it fails to look at the costs of such a move. This so-called “crappy” land is the home of people who have farmed it for generations, growing the products that we all depend on. The Westside produces billions in food and fiber crops annually and much more in farm-related economic activity supporting local communities. Drought fallowing temporarily increased unemployment. Retiring farmland would have the same effect and it would be permanent. Rural counties depend on farm tax revenue for social services, law enforcement, and fire protection. Who pays for that when the farms are gone? And California’s Westside is an important source for winter vegetables that don’t grow in other parts of the country.  The ripple effect of Walker’s irresponsible claims would also affect consumers who buy those fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. When we don’t grow something in California it might be grown overseas, often under working conditions or with chemicals that are illegal here.

Reducing people to just numbers on a spreadsheet is dangerous business. Before we jump on Walker’s bandwagon let’s make sure we have our facts straight and are willing to accept the consequences of these simplistic solutions to California’s water supply challenges.

Smart Policies- Multiple Benefits in Floodplains

Securing California’s water future for farms, families and native species is possible. California Rice FieldWhen we pursue smart policies that foster innovative solutions, everyone benefits. One example of these smart policy solutions is the use of strategically expandable floodplains found in the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan.

How can changing how we think about storm flows and floodplains improve water management for all of California? When precipitation is abundant, like this year, water managers are sometimes forced to release water from reservoirs early to be ready for possible future rain, instead of safely storing it and releasing it in ways that provide multiple benefits.

With expanded floodplains, water is allowed to overflow onto farmland that is managed in a way to accommodate higher seasonal flows. Strategically expanding floodplains onto suitable farmland helps protect levees, communities, and farms from potential flood damage. Native species are provided habitat, food, and protection, and opportunities to recharge groundwater aquifers are enhanced.

Smart policies that encourage collaborative approaches to improve how water is managed for everyone can protect communities, nurture the environment, and ensure vibrant local farms.

Learn more about how California’s farmers in the Sacramento Valley are working on innovative ways to improve water management in this Sacramento Bee piece on floodplains.

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.

California needs to adopt a holistic approach to water policy

Moving forward, California needs to adopt a holistic approach to water policy that takes advantage of all our options. By considering just one issue at a time and focusing on a single piece of the puzzle, as we have done for decades it creates a fragmented approach to water policy, which ends up hurting everyone.

Some voices in the state seem to put their entire focus on groundwater. One such opinion piece just ran in the Los Angeles Times. That is the kind of shortsighted thinking that has plagued our water policy for years. If we have learned one thing from this historic storm season it should be that California needs to pursue every possible approach that will allow us to take advantage of wet years in order to make the dry ones a little less painful for all. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Since the beginning of the year, enough water has spilled out of California’s rain-swollen Lake Oroville to meet the demands of roughly 14 million people for a year.” Why wouldn’t we do everything possible to capture it and prepare for the future?

We also need to recognize the critical link between surface storage and groundwater storage. We agree that our groundwater supplies need to be replenished, but that happens gradually as water enters underground aquifers from the very storage projects to which many people object. Surface storage is critical to effectively manage and enhance groundwater because of its ability to slow runoff during the kinds of atmospheric river events we’ve seen this year.

Many of these same people will also tell you that farms are irresponsible water guzzlers and need to shutter operations. In this worldview, farms are using the water simply for the sake of using it. What’s missing here is that California farms turn that water into food – specifically the healthy fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, dairy, meat and yes, wine that Californians buy every day for their families.

Future water policy must balance the interests of urban water users, farms and the environment. Working together, we can continue to share this beautiful state as we have for centuries. However if we refuse to look at the big picture and listen to those who insist on examining only one piece of the puzzle at a time, we are likely in for tougher times than necessary.

2017 Snow Survey Results Off the Charts- Must Improve Water Supplies

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

Map showing how much water is in the Sierra snowpack today.

“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.

Reactions to State Board Unimpaired Flows Action

Reactions to State Board Unimpaired Flows Action

On September 15, the State Water Resources Control Board released an updated proposal for the Bay Delta Water Quality Plan, expanding the pursuit of increased flow in it’s approach for addressing species decline in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system.

“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.

Water Resource Control Board President Felicia Marcus in an Op-Ed in the Sacramento Bee on September 15, 2016 remarked that-

“sometimes our rivers are asked to do too much. And then it is the State Water Board’s duty to balance water use among the many people and wildlife that are dependent on the rivers. This is now happening with the San Joaquin River. It is the longest river in California, the second largest in the state, and a critical piece of the Bay Delta puzzle. The San Joaquin is an overburdened river.”

Marcus goes on to say that the State Board will “be listening for people’s best thoughts and proposals in the coming weeks and months before making our decisions.”

But in a joint response by Modesto Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District issued September 15, 2016, Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell noted that

“these plans fail to consider new science that is pointing to holistic approaches to addressing multiple stressors that affect fish populations, not just flow”

despite the numerous attempts by community leaders and water experts to ensure that the Board was aware of the multiple stressors affecting endangered fish and the Delta ecosystem, the Board continues to pursue an approach that has failed to achieve improvements in fish populations for over 20 years. The failure of flushing more and more water to the ocean is well documented, says Wade-

“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.”

Adding to the ire of affected communities, Knell noted that despite Board member commitments to listen to the public,

“Not a single public meeting ever was held in San Joaquin, Stanislaus or Merced counties.”

Representing 27 different cities, counties, school departments, chambers of commerce, water districts and farm bureaus, A Multi-County Coalition issued a response to the action calling for better analysis of available modern science, and demanded an improved process that incorporates feedback from impacted communities and stakeholders, as well as mitigation for the impacts on disadvantaged communities from any Water Resources Control Board action. The Coalition reports that the action-

“If implemented, the proposal shuts down any hope of economic growth in this multi-county region, eliminates swaths of agricultural employment, thwarts job creation and creates enormous funding challenges for schools, cities, public health, law enforcement and other essential public services.”

“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.” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.