One failure is we’re not capturing and storing nearly as much floodwater as we should.Continue reading
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
California farms are bearing the brunt of this year’s short water supply and have been forced to reduce the acreage of popular California crops, such as asparagus, melons, lettuce, rice, tomatoes, sweet corn, and others.
Water supply reductions mean fewer fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers, massive farm-related job losses, and billions in lost economic activity, impacts that go beyond rural and disadvantaged communities. View the map here.
About 2 million acres of California’s irrigated farmland, or one out of every four acres, has already had its water supply cut by 95 percent. Another million acres has lost 80 percent of its water supply this year with much of the remaining farmland experiencing cuts of 25 percent or more.
Conditions are similar to those that occurred in 2015. According to a 2015 drought report issued by UC Davis, ERA Economics, and the UC Agricultural issues Center, water supply cuts led to the fallowing of 540,000 acres of farmland, 21,000 lost jobs, and an economic loss of $2.7 billion.
Critical reservoirs, including Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, Millerton, and San Luis combined have 1.1 million acre-feet less water in storage today than they had at the end of March in 2015, California’s last critically dry year. Levels in these reservoirs are currently at 56 percent of average, compared to 72 percent of average at this time in 2015. They are essential to supplying rural communities with drinking water, irrigating farms, supplying water to wildlife refuges, and recharging aquifers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys where a majority of California-grown food products originate.
It is a distressing time for farmers, farm workers, and businesses that depend on agriculture all across California and illustrates the need to invest in infrastructure that will increase our ability to capture more water during wet years when it is abundant to save for dry years like this. It also puts a strain on consumers who want local, California-grown fresh food choices for their families.
Info Graph – What can the 2015 drought tell us about the impacts of a drought in 2021?
Taking a look back at a similar water year can help us understand what might be in store for us through the rest of this year and possibly beyond.
California is in a critically dry year, the same as in 2015. Water will be extremely tight for thousands of farmers around the state, and many of them have already received notice that their water supplies are being cut by up to 95 percent.
In 2015, water supply cuts of that magnitude led to over half a million acres of land taken out of production. Had there been sufficient water supplies in 2015, the amount of land that was fallowed could have produced:
- 8.6 billion heads of lettuce, or
- 594 million cartons of melons, or
- 54 million tons of grapes, or
- 27 million tons of tomatoes.
Instead, because no water was available, those fields produced nothing but weeds.
California is the No. 1 farm state in the nation with tens of thousands of agricultural jobs, with wages at all income levels covering all 58 counties. When farms aren’t growing food for people, it affects jobs, personal income, and their quality of life. In addition, farm-related jobs contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to state and local tax revenue which provide services local communities value, like police, firefighters and teachers.
In 2015, a total of 21,000 jobs were lost with an economic impact of $2.7 billion across the state.
Preparing for Drought
Farmers have been preparing for another drought and have invested heavily in water use efficiency projects, including drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation systems, soil moisture monitoring, and computerized irrigation controllers. But the savings achieved by those investments haven’t been enough to avoid wide-scale land fallowing due to the massive water supply shortages farmers are experiencing again this year.
Info Graph – Long Term Impacts on California From Water Supply Cuts
Looking long-term, continuing water shortages will have a devastating effect not only on California farms but also on the farm related jobs throughout our economy.
The Blueprint Economic Impact Report, available HERE, indicates that over the next 30 years, water supply cuts will lead to the permanent loss of 1 million acres of productive farmland.
Fewer healthy foods will be available from California farms. The report estimates that California will permanently lose:
- 86,000 acres of vegetables,
- 130,000 acres of fruit-producing trees,
- 129,000 acres of wine and table grapes,
- 327,000 acres of nuts, and much more.
These reductions translate into the permanent loss of 85,000 jobs, half of which are off the farm, such as food processing, transportation, wholesale, retail, and ports. They also mean the permanent loss of over $535 million in tax revenue which, again, is used to provide the services local communities value, like police, firefighters and teachers.
Actions, including better flood management for groundwater recharge, improved conveyance to move water to potential groundwater banking areas, new and enlarged storage projects, and regulatory reform designed to improve in-stream flows for ecosystem benefits while protecting agricultural water supplies can help minimize the effects described above. Federal investments toward improving water supply infrastructure is essential to providing a secure water future to sustain the nation’s food supply, meet urban and suburban needs, and provide for a healthy environment throughout California.
This weekend, Bakersfield Californian columnist Lois Henry published an informative piece on the water management issues that nearly resulted in loss of water to millions of Californians. Henry’s column is well worth a read: in addition to providing a history of this year’s numerous Federal tinkering with water allocation, it also touches on what motivated the tinkering to begin with.
What Henry outlines are a series of decisions made without reliance on sound science—decisions made repeatedly, when each time the desired effect is never achieved. Going forward, we should rely on sound decision making that clearly benefits all sectors of California—not just one sector that hasn’t yet been shown to benefit. The efforts of water districts in California as well as the Department of Water Resources to mitigate these unwise Federal choices should be commended. If you haven’t already, please read Lois Henry’s column for a better understanding of the consequences of short-sighted water policy.
To describe the Delta as altered is to say that New York City is populous or California water politics contentious. Since the 19th century when locals began to reclaim the marshlands, dike the rivers, and develop settlements on the rivers- the history of the Delta has long been one of change. California’s largest river delta, the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta has been forever altered by human habitation. Little remains of the complex estuary network of tidal wetlands, freshwater rivers and recurring saline incursions.
Long gone are the nuanced networks of sloughs and wetlands that once dominated the historic delta. Today’s Delta is a scene dominated by numerous dried islands often sitting 20-30 feet below the water level just beyond the 1100 miles of earthen dikes. Plans exist to restore more than 30,000 acres of riparian and wetland habitat, but to date these plans continue to undergo environmental review.
Beyond the edges of these islands ongoing dredging of channels for deepwater shipping to the inland port cities of Stockton and Sacramento applies greater pressure to the species looking for shallow water habitat.
The Delta today is one of artificially fresh water- held far to the west of pre-project development, flows originating in the state’s network of reservoirs now support in-delta diversions for use by in-delta agriculture, cities as near as Stockton and as far away as San Diego. It is used to grow avocados on small farms near San Diego and organic cantaloupee near Firebaugh, among more than 300 other types of food and fiber that rely on water flowing through the Delta. as well as providing water to more than 25 million Californians.
There are numerous stressors impacting the health of the Delta and the threatened and endangered species living there, including the Delta Smelt. The region’s biosphere has changed dramatically and is now dominated by invasive species that have decimated native fish populations.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has stated that predation by non-native bass on winter-run salmon is a “major stressor,” while widespread invasive Asian clams and other species continue to alter the delta’s complex food network. Industrial chemicals being found in species at the mouth of the bay are also tied to what has been called Pelagic organism decline by researchers studying the health of the Delta.
Regarding the decline of the Delta Smelt, the federal agency responsible for studying and restoring threatened species, the Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledges that “we are unable to determine with certainty which threats or combinations of threats are directly responsible.” Since 1994, Fishery and wildlife regulators have limited their focus to delta exports, though the agency acknowledges that its “existing regulatory mechanisms have not proven adequate” to stop the fish’s decline since its listing nearly 20 years ago.
Yet sensational news stories continue, declaring water exports culpable- “With Just Six Delta Smelt Left, Controversial California Fish Species Faces Impending Extinction” and “Threatened Smelt Touches Off Battles in California’s Endless Water Wars” but scientists who study the complex Delta ecosystem suggest that this claim is likely overly simplistic. Researchers discussing the issue with the Wall Street Journal noted that “Other studies have noted that the biggest driver of species abundance in the delta is precipitation, which may explain why the smelt population has plummeted over the past four years of drought after rebounding in 2011—a wet year.”
Suggested changes to the Delta export facilities, intended to reduce possible impacts to threatened and endangered species while restoring reliability to water supplies remain under review, and could allow the Delta to return to a more natural condition, while restoring water supply reliability to more than 25 million Californians and millions of acres of the most productive farmland on the planet.
Over 41 percent of California’s irrigated farmland will lose 80 percent or more of its normal surface water allocation this year, according to a new survey by the California Farm Water Coalition.
The survey of agricultural water suppliers conducted the first week of April shows that 3.1 million acres, or 41.6 percent of California’s irrigated farmland, is expecting deep cuts to the water delivered in a normal year. That is an area 10 times the size of Los Angeles.
The survey also revealed that almost 30 percent of the irrigated farmland in the state, 2.2 million acres, will get no surface water deliveries this year.
Because of significant agricultural water supply cuts that have happened over the past two years, large amounts of land going unplanted will occur in 2015. According to the survey, approximately 620,000 acres are estimated to be fallowed this year. Associated job losses could reach 23,000 with an economic hit to the state’s economy exceeding $5.7 billion.
California farms have taken a severe hit to water supplies for two years in a row. Researchers at the University of California issued a report last year based on computer modeling that estimated the Central Valley’s surface water supply diminished by about one-third, or 6.6 million acre-feet with 410,000 acres estimated to be fallowed.
Some farmers last year received no surface water deliveries at all and turned to groundwater pumping to offset the losses. Recent levels of groundwater pumping are expensive and not sustainable.
Opposition to H.R. 5781 is Misleading
H.R. 5781, Congressman David Valadao’s drought relief bill requires water exports to stay within the existing salmon and Delta smelt biological opinions.
Concerns raised by NRDC’s Doug Obegi are a red herring to thwart progress on providing water to a parched Central Valley. Exports may increase, as Obegi says, but they would be at a time when salmon and Delta smelt aren’t at risk.
Agricultural losses this year exceed the value of California’s entire 1.8 billion salmon industry
It’s also funny that Obegi is so concerned about fishing jobs and economics at a time when harm to the economy and job losses in agriculture are much worse. A university study this year reported that there were 17,100 farm-related job losses in California in 2014 and a $2.2 billion hit to the farm economy, eclipsing the state’s entire salmon industry, valued at $1.8 billion, according to fish and wildlife economics and statistics consultant Southwick and Associates.
17,100 farm-related job losses in California in 2014 and a $2.2 billion hit to the farm economy
The burdensome regulations that have withered Central Valley food production are the work of Obegi and NRDC in the courtroom. Of course he doesn’t want anything to change.
Any potential land fallowing in the Sacramento Valley would be done on a voluntary basis, as it is today.
Any potential land fallowing in the Sacramento Valley would be done on a voluntary basis, as it is today and water use decisions there are properly managed to protect the mosaic of abundant Sacramento Valley agricultural and wildlife resources. Delfino’s concern is nonsensical that the Sacramento Valley would be making decisions that benefit others while at the same time hurting themselves.
There is a positive relationship between Northern California and other parts of the state. It’s doubtful that they will do anything to diminish that. Maybe that’s really what worries Delfino.