Water Diversion Lessons from Australia

Australian Water Woes: Water Diversion Will Not Save Fish

 

By Laurie Greene, Editor

 

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, spoke to the CDFA Board of Directors about the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposed strategy of diverting up to 40 percent of the Tuolumne River flows to increase flows in the Delta for salmon and smelt. The diversion would severely impact farm and city water needs in both the Turlock Irrigation District (TID) and Oakdale Irrigation District (OID).

 

“Despite increased [water] flows over the years, the fish populations continue to decline in the Delta,” Wade said. “We have exacerbated this problem. We have released water with the intent going back to 2008 and 2009 [scenarios] and even before, if you want to turn the clock back to 1992, and yet we’re still seeing population crashes.”

 

“The science is showing that fish are not recovering. Yet, the California Department of Water Resources is doubling down on the same kind of activity—the same strategy—that hasn’t worked in the past and that we do not expect to work moving forward,” he said.

 

Mike Wade
Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

 

“That is why schools, health departments, farmers, Latinos, economic development departments have opposed the regulation. A host of folks have come out and commented, written letters, and expressed their opinion on the plan because of the severe economic issues they are going to deal with at the 40% impaired flow level.”

 

Wade noted that in recent years, a lot of attention has focused on Australia and how great they are at water management. People commend their effectiveness in changing their water rights system and supposedly improving their ecosystem—or having a plan to work on their ecosystem issues. “In 2009, the vast agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority established a flow amount, or a quantity, for environmental water that was around 2.2 million acre-feet. That is out of around 26.4 million acre-feet of average annual flow in the Murray-Darling Basin,” Wade said.

 

“To set the stage, the Murray-Darling Basin is in eastern Australia. It extends in the north around 800 miles from Gold Coast and the border of Queensland all the way south to Melbourne,” Wade said. “It is actually a geographic area about the size of California and remarkably has a very similar quantity of water to serve its farmers. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority set a 2.2 million acre-foot environmental water buyback for the environment, like we are talking about here.”

 

Wade conveyed to the CDFA Board what his friends in Australia were telling him. “I was there for two weeks in August following up on a trip I took in 2012 to learn about their water supply issues and how they deal with it. My friends are telling me, ‘Don’t do what we do. It has been a disaster,’” Wade said.

 

“The environmental sector hasn’t even achieved their full environmental buyback goal, and they’re already seeing 35% unemployment in some towns. It is directly related to the water buybacks, the declining amount of irrigation water, and the declining agriculture economy because of the change in focus on how they deliver and use water in Australia,” he said.

 

“Three weeks ago—this is how recent these things are coming about and how they’re changing—a good friend of mine, Michael Murray, Cotton Australia general manager, said the ‘Just Add Water’ approach already in place doesn’t work in the Northern Basin. It has to be abandoned. And recently, Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia, Inc. of Australia President Jeremy Morton said, ‘The over-recovery of water has resulted in unnecessary economic harm to communities. It’s a case of maximum pain with minimum gain.'”

 

“A dozen organizations are suggesting this isn’t just a, ‘Don’t do it’ and ‘Abandon the environmental water buybacks.’ What they’re suggesting is the exact same thing that TID and OID are going to experience. Australia’s problems in the Murray-Darling Basin are, remarkably, invasive species, the loss of habitat, and some of the water quality issues that we deal with. It’s the same story, only they are a few years ahead of us,” Wade said.

 

“What has happened in Australia is going to happen to us in the Valley, with big unemployment issues and the closed businesses,” Wade said. “I walked down the main street in the town of Helston and half of the businesses—I’m not exaggeratinghalf of the businesses were boarded up and closed. Only small businesses were still open, such as a convenience store, a bar and a tailor. All the rest were gone.”

 

Wade asked CDFA Secretary Karen Ross to extend the comment period for the Water Board’s proposal. “We all need to have an opportunity to bring some of these issues to light and to support what’s going on in the agriculture community. We must support the need for comprehensive economic studies, either bringing out the ones that have been done or doing some more. We have more economic data will show there is an economic hit that’s deeper, much deeper, that what is proposed or suggested in the plan.”

Farm Water Coalition Shames State Water Resources     

Farm Water Coalition Shames SWRCB Over Proposal 

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

The California Farm Water Coalition (Coalition) was formed in 1989 to increase public awareness of agriculture’s efficient use of water and to promote the industry’s environmental sensitivity regarding water.

Mike Wade, executive director of the Sacramento-based Coalition, has major concerns about the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB)‘s proposal of taking 40% of the water from many irrigation districts along three rivers that flow into the San Joaquin River to protect an endangered fish. The SWRCB proposes to divert water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers to increase flows in the Sacramento Delta.

Mike Wade, executive director, California Farm Water Coalition
Mike Wade, executive director, California Farm Water Coalition

Wade explained, “The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is important for the United States, and we want to see it work. However, it’s not working. It’s not helping fish, and it’s hurting communities.” But Wade wants to revise the ESA “in how we deal with some of the species management issues.”

Wade said SWRCB is doubling down on the same tired, old strategy that is not going to work any more now than it has in the past. “What happened in the past isn’t helping salmon. What’s happened in the past isn’t helping the delta smelt. You’d think someone would get a clue that maybe other things are in play, there are other factors that need to be addressed.”

The State Water Resources Control Board estimated the proposed 40% diversion of river flow would decrease agricultural economic output by 64 million or 2.5% of the baseline average for the region.

Ag officials warn that if the proposal goes through it would force growers in the area to use more groundwater—which they have largely avoided because the Turlock Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District historically met the irrigation need of local farms.

This is the only agricultural area in the Central Valley that does not have critical overdraft problems. If the state takes away 40% of water available to growers, it could lead to a critical overdraft issue there as well.

Good News for Oakdale Irrigation District Farmers

Oakdale Irrigation District Farmers:
2015 Water Allotments Raised to 40 Inches

A couple of beneficial spring storms combined with cool weather and strong water conservation led to good news Tuesday morning for farmers in the Oakdale Irrigation District: A small bump in the amount of water they will receive in the fourth year of drought.

OID directors voted 4-0, with Al Bairos absent, to raise this year’s allocation to 40 inches from 36. When the irrigation season began in March, OID told irrigators to expect 30 inches this year – the first time in its 105-year history it has put limits in place.

Directors also declined to rescind a decision they made in April to deliver 10 inches of water to Tier 2 customers.

General Manager Steve Knell said small storms in April and May provided an unexpected bonus: enough water to keep soil moisture high in the valley, plus additional runoff into Sierra reservoirs. He told directors that 2.8 inches of rain fell above Donnells and Beardsley Lakes, which had plenty of room to capture it.

He said the rain comes on top of positive efforts by OID’s 2,900 agricultural customers to use less water. The combination has the district to easily meet its goal of pushing at least 10,000 acre-feet of “saved” water into New Melones Reservoir. OID is on target to conserve about 17,000 acre-feet, Knell said.

“When you ask constituents to step up in this district, they do it,” he said.

The 40 inches OID’s irrigators will receive compares to 36 inches for those in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and is more than double what farmers in the Modesto and Turlock districts will get this summer.

“Forty inches is an abundance of water,” said Brian Lemons, who grows almonds and walnuts.

Still, the implications of the drought were on the minds of OID’s staff and board.

Knell said the district is discussing various 2016 water scenarios with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages New Melones. And Director Frank Clark warned about the financial implications of the drought on the district, which has dug into its reserves to use $17 million to balance its budget the past two years.

“If these dry years continue and you have no income from hydro production and you have no excess water to sell and you keep drawing down from reserves, it looks bleak,” Clark said. “We could be looking at … raising irrigation rates.”