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.
Water shortages that continue to plague California are increasingly affecting the number of acres devoted to growing our food. Farmers are making tough choices on which crops and how much to plant in the face of crushing water supply cuts. The state could see as much as 691,000 acres taken out of production this year, a 75 percent increase over last year and 151,000 acres more than the previous high in 2015.
Critical for consumers are the crops that won’t make it to the grocery store because of insufficient water supplies. Fresh fruits and vegetables, along with processing tomatoes, strawberries, citrus, peaches, broccoli, and rice are among the crops impacted when farm water supplies are cut off. It’s estimated that up to 40 percent of California’s irrigated cropland will receive little or no surface water this year.
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.
Poll affirms Americans’ support for farm water
Americans have confirmed their support for farmers’ use of water to produce food and fiber during times of scarcity in a recent poll by AP-GfK.
The drought now affecting California and other Western states has captured the public’s attention, with the majority of those polled (56 percent) noting that they are following news about the drought somewhat, or extremely/very closely. With the eyes of the nation on California’s problems, the public recognizes that our states’ farms are being threatened-with 74 percent believing that water for agriculture should be a priority, more than any other water use.
This renewed focus provides a unique opportunity to share the care and effort taken by farmers in growing our farm products. California’s farmers are committed to producing food and fiber in ecologically-sensitive ways, investing heavily in improvements in water use efficiency systems like soil moisture sensors, irrigation scheduling and automation, and precision drip irrigation.
Farmers recognize that water is precious, and recycle and reuse water whenever possible. For decades farmers in California have captured unused water from one field for reuse on nearby fields. As technologies improve, other emerging opportunities for water recycling also show promise. Farmers are already using purified urban runoff and wastewater that has been treated to remove impurities to supplement fresh water, and expanding use of solar stills to desalinate water and remove other troublesome minerals is already in the works.
Recent criticism of consumers’ food choices has argued that growing food in California using these and other sophisticated agronomic practices demands vast sums of water to be grown in California, but the truth is, for many crops, California is exactly the right place.
California is unique in our ability to grow more than 400 different types of food and other farm products. This variety comes courtesy of California’s sheer size: Roughly 800 miles north to south, California is home to a diverse range of growing conditions. Making sweeping generalizations about California’s suitability for agriculture ignores just how diverse the state really is.
The years of water supply instability prior to the drought challenged farmers’ ability to produce our food Overcoming the challenges of nature require us to identify solutions that benefit us all. Right now, however, we are struggling against bureaucracies and regulations that are contrary to the will of the people.
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.
Reduced Pumping Now May Protect Future Supplies
The Department of Water Resources (DWR) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are experimenting with pumping reductions for several days to prevent a “turbidity bridge” from occurring in the central and south Delta. Delta smelt are attracted to turbid, or cloudy, water because it provides shelter from potential predators, such as non-native bass. According to a statement today by DWR, “Foregoing the capture of tens of thousands of acre-feet of water over the next several days may allow water project operators to avoid the loss of hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water supply later in the winter.”
Turbidity Reduced Pumping in 2012
In December 2012, a plume of turbidity that extended into the central Delta helped to create the situation in which water project operators severely curtailed pumping storm runoff in order to avoid harm to smelt. As a result, hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water were not moved into reservoir storage.
Will the Risk Pay Off?
Clearly there is risk associated with a decision like this. We hope the risk pays off.
Mismanaging Floods in a Drought (12-12-2014)
While this week’s big storm dropped significant amounts of rain and snow in California, many water users worry that we are on track to repeat the disaster of last year. Hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water were in the system and Delta pumps were almost completely shut down. It surprises many that we are mismanaging floods in a drought. As it turned out, last year’s wasted water resulted in most South of Delta water users getting a zero allocation and the state suffering significant economic and social damage with no measurable environmental benefits.
As this really big storm brings its bounty of water we are situated just like we were 12 months ago except that now the State’s reservoirs and its groundwater are substantially more depleted than they were exactly one year ago.
Pumping plants are running at reduced levels
Last week, the C.W. “Bill” Jones Pumping Plant at Tracy was running at a pathetic 19.7% of capacity. This week it is running at 60% capacity, or 2,600 cubic feet per second (cfs) out of a permitted level of 4,300 cfs. Delta outflows, in comparison, are six to over 30 times the permitted export level.
Delta inflows are rising dramatically and with very high outflow, perhaps exceeding 100,000 cfs, a significant amount of water is available for export to put into storage for next year’s crop season. Many agencies will be in flood control management mode. Nonetheless, with the state in a historic drought, pumping is likely to be sharply curtailed due to the possibility that smelt are cloaked in the turbid water stirred up by storm flows. Except for a marginal theoretic benefit to Delta smelt, the entire southern half of the state would be able to access this precious resource, which instead will be turned to salt in the Pacific Ocean.
This is just the kind of Kafkaesque nightmare the Emergency Drought Legislation sought to relieve… at least around the margins.
Perhaps the crystal ball is wrong. If not, let’s hope this year we are better prepared to make the case that such behavior is blatantly contrary to the public interest.