Abandoning Established Water Law Does Nothing to Produce or Save One Drop of Water and Puts Our Food Supply at Risk

August 30, 2022 in CFWC Blog, Water Rights

In times of crisis, drastic measures born out of panic almost always make things worse, and the same applies to dealing with California’s current drought.

There is no doubt that people, farms, our communities, and the environment are suffering. And there is a theory being floated among the state’s water bureaucracy that if we abandon our long-established system of water rights, our problems will be solved.

They won’t. Water rights are not the cause of California’s changing weather patterns and neither discarding this long-established law, nor fighting the legal battles that would result from trying to do so, will move, store, or create one drop of water. 

Water rights provide stability during dry times

Water rights, a form of property rights, lend some predictability to water users in times of scarcity. Cities, businesses, farms, and rural communities all need some idea of available supply during a drought in order to plan and adjust.

In addition, it’s important to understand that even under existing water rights, regulators have sufficient flexibility to alter water deliveries in critical situations. In 2021 and 2022 those powers were used to make drastic cuts to most farms and some cities, with many farms receiving none of their normal allocation.

A safe food supply is a matter of national security

Under the state constitution, all water, no matter the rights attached to it, must be put to “beneficial use.” We argue that maintaining a healthy, abundant, and safe food supply is also a matter of national security. Sixty percent of our nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California and that production cannot simply be moved to other states. If we abandon California farms, we’re accepting food shortages, higher prices, and more imports from foreign countries, many with significantly lower safety standards. To put it in perspective, for every acre that is left unplanted because of a lack of irrigation water, it is the equivalent of 50,000 salads that would not be available to consumers.

And while most calls to eliminate water rights are aimed at farmers, upending the system would impact all Californians.

Some of the most senior water rights holders are water agencies in major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and other Bay Area cities serving more than 1.8 million Californians.

We can store more water in wet years without harm

The inconvenient truth for all Californians is that our state has not moved quickly enough to deal with the impacts of climate change. For some time, climate scientists have been telling us that precipitation in the form of rain instead of snow is the new normal. That means we must build additional storage for both above and below ground water in order to capture water when Mother Nature delivers it. A recent policy brief by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) echoed the need for more storage saying, “. . .it is possible to do a better job of storing water during wet years—both above and below ground—without doing harm.”

The kind of projects needed include new or expanded reservoirs that can serve as environmentally-friendly water storage. New canals and pipelines would help distribute floodwater to areas in California’s Central Valley and also help recharge groundwater basins. PPIC estimates increasing storage could allow us to capture between 400,000 and 800,000 acre-feet of water each year, enough to serve hundreds of thousands of homes for a year or grow literally millions of salads.

There is money to pay for projects right now

And we have the money to do this. The federal government passed a huge infrastructure bill last year and California’s government currently has a $100 billion surplus.

Difficult times call for balanced, collaborative solutions, not drastic measures like upending water rights, which solves nothing and could make things worse for all Californians.

Guest Blog: CA water board readopts precedent-setting groundwater regs

June 29, 2022 in CFWC Blog

By: Western Livestock Journal

Family farmers and ranchers in Siskiyou County in far-northern California will continue to face unprecedented groundwater and surface water curtailments this summer and next if the drought continues. On June 21, the California State Water Resources Control Board readopted a drought emergency regulation for the Scott River and Shasta River watersheds that continues severe curtailments based on new minimum flow requirements in the Scott and Shasta rivers.

Some amendments were made to the existing emergency regulation, which was put in place by the water board last September. According to the Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance (AgWA), a local grassroots communication group that formed in response to the emergency regulations, the adopted changes added some flexibility to the previous regulation.

Theodora Johnson, spokesperson for AgWA, said water board staff have been “very willing to talk to us and make fine-tuning changes.” But, she added, the readopted regulation still contains the major aspects that threaten the businesses of the small, multi-generational farms and ranches in the Scott and Shasta valleys.

“The regulation still curtails both groundwater and surface water irrigation if certain flow objectives are not met on either river,” Johnson said. “While the flow objectives for the Shasta got lowered, the Scott River objectives remain unachievably high, setting us up for curtailments. We expect the hammer to drop no later than next month.”

Helping fish?

The regulation is allegedly in response to distressed fish populations. However, as noted by Sari Sommarstrom, a retired watershed consultant from Scott Valley, fish in the Scott River have actually been doing quite well, despite the fact that the water board’s summer flow objectives haven’t been met for the better part of a decade.

Sommarstrom, who commented at the meeting, emphasized the unreasonableness of the regulation.

“As far as I can understand, we’re the only place in California where all ag wells are subject to curtailment, despite Scott Valley not being overdrafted—unlike the San Joaquin and Salinas—despite most ag production wells being addressed in our Scott decree and despite pretty good natural runs of salmon,” Sommarstrom said.

Sommarstrom, a founding member of AgWA, also told the board this spring’s near-record-breaking coho salmon outmigration from the Scott River was not aided by last September’s curtailments—contrary to agency claims.

“Saying the 2020 coho run benefited from these regulations does not match up with the life cycle needs. The regs didn’t kick in until mid-September. It was really last summer—before the regs kicked in—that was the most stressful part for those juvenile rearing coho.”

Communication wins

Sommarstrom noted that the water board staff has been very communicative, but she said, “There’s so much info that we’re not communicating well on, still. The assumption in the regs is that there are fish everywhere, all the time, and that’s not true in the system.”

Johnson and Sommarstrom both noted that one water board member, Vice Chair Dorene D’Adamo, was particularly attentive to AgWA’s concerns.

“We were really grateful for Vice Chair D’Adamo’s addition of a resolution that recognizes our county’s locally-developed Groundwater Sustainability Plan, and the (University of California) Davis-developed hydrologic model that guided that plan,” Sommarstrom said.

“When this emergency reg was adopted last year, it didn’t even recognize the efforts we’ve been making for over a decade to improve our groundwater and flow situation in the Shasta and Scott valleys. We hope the new resolution is a sign that the water board is willing to work with the county and local groups to come up with solutions that are less punitive and more proactive on the supply side of the situation.”

Additional language proposed by D’Adamo did support one supply-side action: “groundwater recharge” permitting.

“That was encouraging to see,” Johnson said. “But the fact remains that the burden is currently being placed 100 percent on our irrigators to reach the flow levels demanded by the water board. We are a snowmelt-dependent system with no dams or big reservoirs. We simply can’t reach those flow levels if we don’t get adequate precipitation. Unless we find ways to hold onto water in the winter and spring when flows are high, we won’t reach the levels they want on the Scott. And the family rancher is the whipping boy.”

Groundwater jurisdiction

An ongoing lawsuit in Shasta Valley is currently challenging the assumption of connectivity between groundwater and surface water in the Big Springs Irrigation District. The water board’s jurisdiction only covers surface water and “interconnected” groundwater.

During the meeting, D’Adamo raised the issue of the water board’s jurisdiction over all groundwater. “I have to say that this is an area that’s troubled me from the start, but I understand the need for us to include groundwater, and I’ve spent a lot of time with our staff really wanting to make sure I understand our authorities and that we are not overreaching.”

She asked a water board attorney at the meeting whether future information obtained regarding connectivity could change the water board’s approach of regulating all the water rights in the Scott and Shasta valleys. The attorney’s response was noncommittal.

Major components of the regulation are the following:

• The 30 percent reduction option: For those wishing to continue irrigating with groundwater after a curtailment is issued, the water board is allowing for individual plans that reduce irrigation by 30 percent. Many ranches have signed up for these plans. However, half of Scott Valley’s irrigated acreage (about 15,000 acres) doesn’t qualify under this type of plan.

• Limited surface water diversions during a curtailment could be allowed. There is a “tributary-wide” plan option that would allow limited surface water use after a curtailment, but this option has not yet been attempted in Scott Valley. It would require coordination between diverters on a given ditch or tributary, coordination with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and steady monitoring.

• Livestock watering out of ditches in the nonirrigation season is severely limited, although there are exceptions. AgWA argues that using earthen ditches during the nonirrigation season—in a way that doesn’t harm fish—serves an important function of recharging groundwater and should be encouraged.

• Livestock drinking water is limited during a curtailment. The max allowable use is 15 gallons/day for cattle and 1.5 gallons for sheep. AgWA has consistently argued these amounts are not adequate, especially in hot weather. Water board staff did add language to allow livestock twice the maximum level when temperatures exceed 90 F.

• Penalties of $500 per day for violations are still in place. Some farmers and ranchers have already suffered penalties, in some instances because of accidental misfilings of paperwork.

It’s hard to determine how curtailments and the 30 percent plans will affect Scott Valley this year. In Shasta Valley, several century-old ranches have already gone out of business due to the regulations, and it’s unknown how long the regulations will be in place.

“As long as Gov. (Gavin) Newsom (D) keeps the emergency drought proclamation in place, we’re likely to see readoption of some sort of regulation every year,” Johnson said. “We’re not sure how long many of our historic family farms and ranches can withstand that.” — Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance for WLJ

Today’s World is Full of Uncertainties. Your Food Supply Shouldn’t be One of Them

April 1, 2022 in CFWC Blog

Our ad in the 4/2/22 Wall Street Journal

The war in Ukraine and all the global unrest it is causing has focused American’s attention on just how uncertain a world we inhabit.

Inflation was already wreaking havoc on family budgets and now gas prices are also skyrocketing.

Which is exactly why our government should be doing everything it can to reduce reliance on foreign sources for our basic needs, especially food.

Unfortunately, that is the exact opposite of what is happening.

Through out-of-balance regulatory policies and a failure to prioritize western farming, our government is putting our safe, affordable, domestic food supply at risk.

Over 80% of our country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown west of the Rockies and simply cannot be moved elsewhere. Without that supply, Americans will see shortages at the store, even higher prices, be forced to rely more heavily on increasingly unstable foreign sources, or all of these at the same time.

Learn More

When you make a salad, have fruit for breakfast, eat a hamburger with cheese, or put tomato sauce and garlic on a pizza, odds are that at least some of those products came from California.

But without a reliable water supply, that farmland simply cannot produce what our country needs.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In some western states, the government is holding on to existing water supply, rather than release it to farms to grow food. In California, we must move more quickly to build and repair infrastructure that will help us store more water in wet years for use in dry ones like this one. And in general, water policy has become unbalanced in ways that penalize the farms trying to produce our food supply.

Farmland without a water supply increases the risk to our food supply.

California farmers are doing their part and have reduced water use by double digits since 1980. Throughout the West, farms are also important in the battle against climate change because crop production helps remove carbon dioxide from the air. If things continue the way they are, our government is essentially creating deserts instead of food production, which will only perpetuate the cycles of drought and wildfires we’d like to avoid.

Food price increases in 2022 are now expected to exceed those observed in 2020 and 2021. Without changes in water policy, it will continue to get worse.

It has never been more important that U.S. consumers insist on domestically grown food in our stores.

Learn More

Are Curtailments a Balanced Water Use?

March 11, 2022 in CFWC Blog

Scott River (Source: Humboldt State University)

California’s water supply continues to face serious challenges and nowhere is the evidence clearer than on the farms that grow our food. Some of the most critical shortages expected this year extend from the Klamath Basin and Scott Valley, near the Oregon border, to Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. This 450-mile stretch includes some of the most productive farmland on the planet, where the ongoing drought threatens thousands of farms.

And it’s not just farmers who will suffer the consequences of vanishing water supplies. Consumers also face uncertainties when it comes to the food they buy. It’s hard to imagine empty shelves at the grocery store but the evidence of food shortages is already here in the form of higher prices.

In the Scott Valley an unprecedented water curtailment by the State Water Resources Control Board is aimed at reducing the use of irrigation water from both the Scott River and the area’s groundwater basin. Unlike most of California, this area is not served by the large state and federal water projects, nor does it have any reservoirs. The water in the Scott River and underground wells is the sole supply for these farmers on their 30,000 acres of irrigated land, located within a 512,000-acre watershed. This mountain valley primarily produces alfalfa and grass hay, pasture, grain, and cattle. Besides two organic dairies, beef production is either organic or conventional pasture-based for popular markets.

And unlike other areas of the state experiencing critically overdrafted groundwater basins, the Scott Valley basin is designated a “moderate priority,” with a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) recently completed for SGMA and submitted to CDWR for approval.  Despite this concerted effort, farmers in the area are wondering why another State agency is ignoring their GSP strategy and is forcing them to cut all groundwater use as part of the surface water curtailments on the Scott River.

Retired local watershed consultant, Sari Sommarstrom, said the inclusion of all agricultural wells in this drought emergency order appears to be a new extension of the State Water Board’s water rights enforcement powers. – an action that other well users in the state should be aware of. The agency asserts that this severe curtailment is needed to protect Coho salmon, a species listed as threatened under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, from going extinct.

“If minimum instream flow targets designed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to protect salmon are not attained each month, all ag water diversions – under both junior and senior water rights – will be cut back 100%. A 30% reduction option is available for well users through negotiation but is not guaranteed. Many irrigators fear the permanent loss of family farms this year if no irrigation is allowed.” Scott Valley organic rancher Gareth Plank adds, “It’s important to know that a 30% water curtailment translates into a 90% income reduction.  Farming in a region with a short growing season necessitates utilizing 100% of those precious frost-free days.”

Scott Valley (Source: UCANR/Thomas Harter)

Further, hydrologic modeling done by UC Davis water experts shows the target flow the Board is trying to achieve with these draconian cutbacks could not be met even with zero irrigation.

Sommarstrom, who helped create the Scott River Water Trust as a win-win option for fish and farmers, commented: “The California Water Code requires ‘reasonable’ decisions among competing water uses, yet the State Board is asking for the beneficial use of water for fish to almost entirely supersede the beneficial use for agriculture, which is not ‘reasonable’. And the Public Trust Doctrine seeks a ‘balance’ of uses, yet this curtailment is not a balance.”

The Scott River, she said, “currently represents the largest Coho population in the Klamath River system with an annual average of about 800 adults, similar to estimates for the Scott made by CDFW back in the 1960s and a significant improvement over 20 years ago. Its trend does not indicate any probable risk of “extinction”. 

“CDFW agrees that local restoration efforts have helped lead to this significant increase in the salmon population,” leaving her questioning the Coho population rationale as the necessity for the State Water Board’s unprecedented measures in the Scott River watershed.

Plank added, “It’s astounding that after so many years of collaborative efforts with their corresponding successes that the state would want to blow it all up with an ill-conceived draconian plan.”

This year is going to be rough for farmers throughout the state. In situations like this, California’s leadership must take into account the dire situation for farmers with few options and even less water when they’re making decisions that could end farming for thousands of people and the rural communities in which they live.

A Better Solution for Drought Resilience

February 3, 2022 in CFWC Blog

The highly respected Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a report this week that provides guidance and recommendations on water-related spending by the Governor and the State Legislature. The report cites drought-related spending priorities from the past as well as current proposals, and makes a number of recommendations contrary to the current direction of California’s executive and legislative leadership.

Image of flooded recharge ponds in the San Joaquin Valley

Flooded recharge ponds, San Joaquin Valley (Source: PPIC)

In short, the LAO says that the current, $750 million drought response spending proposal does not address the immediate needs of the drought because it won’t result in an immediate increase in the water supply or in a reduction in water use.

“The LAO report shows While the Governor has presented his $750 million package as being for drought response, most of the proposed activities would not address conditions this summer and fall. This is because the majority of the activities would not result in an immediate increase in water supply or reduction in water use, or respond to emergency needs.”

In contrast, according to the report, “the majority of the proposed activities would focus on longer‑term efforts that might improve the State’s and local communities’ abilities to respond to future droughts. Specifically, both the infrastructure projects that would be funded in urban and small communities, as well as many of the water conservation initiatives and habitat improvement projects, likely would take at least a year and perhaps multiple years to implement.”

Preparing for the future is always a good idea. That’s why smart individuals have both a checking and a savings account. While the LAO praises the Governor for long-term drought resilience, its report highlights the lop-sided priorities where water storage projects account for only $30 million in proposed spending, or about six percent of the total.

“As shown in Figure 2, the Governor dedicates only $30 million from his new proposal for water storage projects. These funds would be used for groundwater recharge projects related to implementing local groundwater management plans in accordance with SGMA. In the context of the changing hydrology described above, this is not a particularly large level of spending.”

Chart depicting the Governor's drought response activities and costs

Groundwater storage projects also provide benefits beyond the obvious, such as developing both built and natural infrastructure such as canals, flood bypasses, and designated recharge basins—including farm fields—to direct runoff and floodwaters onto land where it can percolate into the ground to be used later. In addition to potentially restoring some existing groundwater deficits (and mitigating associated negative impacts) and increasing the water supply upon which farmers and residents can draw during dry periods, such projects often have the co‑benefit of reducing flood risk. As such, increasing available groundwater storage and opportunities to capture water runoff in managed aquifer recharge projects might merit additional investments beyond what the Governor proposes.

“The Legislature could also consider a package that provides comparatively more funding for groundwater recharge and storage projects, given their potential to help increase water supply, address groundwater deficiencies, and improve flood control.”

 The LAO report has it right. More emphasis on capturing water during wet years and getting it into storage, is the most effective way to address immediate drought needs and dry years in the future. Both agricultural and urban water users have made great strides over the decades in water conservation.

Shifting the focus of water policy and project financing toward more efficient stormwater capture and using State surplus and federal infrastructure dollars is the right choice at the right time.