One failure is we’re not capturing and storing nearly as much floodwater as we should.Continue reading
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.
Assembly Member Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) has introduced AB 1201, a legislative bill that would require the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop and initiate a science-based approach that helps address predation by non-native species on Delta species. According to analysis prepared by Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee staff, the bill would accomplish two primary goals:
1) Makes findings related to the decline of native fish species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) and the potential for predation by nonnative species on those at-risk fish species.
2) Requires DFW, by June 30, 2016 to initiate a science-based approach that helps address predation by non-native species upon species in the Delta listed as threatened and endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).
A list of supports and opponents as of 5-29-15 is available here.
Fish eat fish.
(Originally published January 20, 2015)
In the Seinfeld episode, “The Watch,” Jerry Seinfeld says to a woman in a restaurant, “You know why fish are so thin? They eat fish.”
Despite their diets all fish aren’t thin. Take bass, for instance. They eat fish. They eat a lot of fish. Bass in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta eat a lot of baby salmon and dining season is coming up fast. You see bass, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, will begin to increase their fish consumption in the next few months.
Bass eat endangered salmon
According to “Striped Bass Fishing Tips” on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website, spring is when bass – an invasive species introduced to provide recreational fishing in the Delta — start their annual feeding frenzy on native salmon.
During the winter, striped bass are spread from San Francisco Bay throughout the Delta and fishing is generally poor because stripers do not feed actively when the water is cold. Fishing success improves as the water warms up in March. Stripers that winter in the bays start moving upstream to fresh water for spawning. During the spring, the bulk of the legal population is spread throughout the Delta and as far north as Colusa and Princeton on the Sacramento River.” http://goo.gl/fzr9ex
Federal government cuts water supply to farms
On January 1 the federal National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) instituted a management action that reduced water deliveries to 25 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland in the name of protecting salmon. In its December 30, 2014 announcement, NMFS justified its decision by saying the bulk of the migrating salmon move into the Delta by the end of December. Reducing export pumping at that time, according to NMFS, “…would protect a sizeable proportion of the winter-run (salmon) population that has already entered the Delta region.”
Then the very next sentence in the announcement says, “These fish will distribute themselves within the Delta and are expected to rear for up to 3-4 months before continuing their emigration to the marine environment.”
That is if they survive the journey.
During these months, bass increase their fish consumption at the same time baby salmon are rearing in the Delta, growing in size in preparation for the remainder of their migration to the ocean. Good luck, baby salmon! You’re likely to become a meal.
The March 2009 issue of Western Outdoors Magazine article titled “Save a Salmon, Catch a Striper” says it all:
“You see, the peak of the baby salmon’s downstream journey corresponds with the spring spawning run of striped bass. Somewhere along the line, the two migrations crash headlong into one another. It’s a one-sided blood bath, and when the spray and foam settles, the stripers emerge fat and happy while the Chinook suffer heavy loses.” https://farmwater.org/salmonslaughter.pdf
A 2010 article by Alistair Bland in the East Bay Express titled, “The baby salmon feeding frenzy in San Pablo Bay” pointed out that bass fishing party boats target areas where hatchery salmon smolts are released into the bay because the fishing is so good.
Bass fishermen can get their limits in “just minutes” and when the bass are cleaned and filleted their stomachs often contain from one to six salmon smolts. http://goo.gl/vWnAn1
What, if anything, is NMFS doing to protect salmon from predatory bass at the same time that it ratchets down export pumping? Twenty years of data show that pumping has had no long-term impact on salmon populations. However, a federal study released in 2013 demonstrated that 93 percent of juvenile salmon on the Tuolumne River are consumed by predators while attempting to migrate to the ocean. http://goo.gl/p0zeA
What is the logic in not addressing that? Where is the outrage from the commercial salmon industry?
The real problem gets ignored
Why are other stakeholders and regulators willing to accept the status quo and reject real reform that will restore the Delta to its former productive salmon fishery? At the same time a handful of bait shops profit from the salmon-gobbling bass industry. ESPN and others broadcast high-dollar bass tournaments. And bass fishing advocates continually say that it’s the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley that are destroying the Delta.
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.
On the Abandonment of Federal Drought Legislation
“California’s Central Valley has shouldered more than its share of the pain brought on by reduced water deliveries and the drought. For more than 20 years, misguided environmental policies have drained California of over 20 million acre-feet of water – water that was originally intended to grow food. These regulations have flushed enough water out of the system to fill Lake Shasta five times.
That might make sense if dumping massive amounts of water was actually helping the ecosystem but it’s not. Threatened and endangered fish continue to languish. The supporters of those failed policies continue to press our elected leaders to do nothing rather than find a balanced solution that serves people at the same level that we serve the environment.
It’s these regulations that Senator Feinstein was attempting to modify; To deliver more water to our communities without harming the protections in the Endangered Species Act. But that didn’t happen.
When we look around the Valley we see unemployment, long lines at food banks, failed businesses, portable showers for people without water and almost half a million acres of fallowed farmland. It’s reliable water that enables that land to produce the food that fills grocery shelves across the state and around the world. We are eroding our ability to feed ourselves and employ our people.
Without needed reform there are two certainties we can count on: The situation for Valley residents isn’t going to improve and neither will the situation for the environment.”