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 The existing, rigid and out-of-date rules rely solely on the amount of water left in the rivers to help fish populations.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.”

Amount of idled farmland is five times greater than report states

central valley drought

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.

california droughtOf 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) •

Land fallowing and retirement

Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, on the Capitol Public Radio Show "Insight," today (Thursday, September 25, 2008) denied that land fallowing is a recommendation in their new advocacy report "More with Less."  When questioned about the language in the report advocating large-scale land fallowing in the San Joaquin Valley, Gleick seemed to bristle and said the report doesn’t recommend that.

However, on page seven of the Executive Summary the report states, "Planned short-term fallowing of 10% of the field crop acreage would save 1.7 million acre-feet of water and provide revenue for capital and other needed improvements.  Furthermore, permanently retiring 1.3 million acres of drainage impaired lands in the San Joaquin Valley would save 3.9 million acre-feet of water per year, while also reducing clean-up costs and minimizing the social and environmental impacts associated with polluted surface and groundwater."

Listen to the clip here:   (40 sec., 776k)

Later in the full body of the report, pages 39 and 40 repeat much of the same language except the numbers are higher, suggesting that 1.5 million acres of permanent land retirement would save 4.6 million acre-feet of water per year.

To put that impact into perspective, water shortages this year led to fallowing of more than 100,000 acres and the loss of over 1,000 full-time jobs.  "More with Less" suggests retirement of many more times that number of acres and says any job losses and local community impacts from land fallowing or retirement should be "mitigated," but it doesn’t say how.

Meanhile, innovative farmers have found ways to farm those lands profitably, reducing or eliminating impacts on soil productivity and keeping productive lands growing food for consumers around the world.

The report does contain sensible recommendations for public investment in items such as improved irrigation technology, something many farmers currently find unaffordable.  CFWC acknowlegdes these financial barriers and supports efforts to bridge that gap.

Listen to the full program here: (12 min., 14.5mb)

Audio clips from the program "Insight" provided with permission from Capitol Public Radio/KXJZ.