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.
“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 exaggerating—half 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.”
Don Bransford, president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) as well as a member of the State Board of Food and Agriculture, expressed major concerns with the proposed State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) diversion of 40% of the water from many irrigation districts on rivers that drain into the San Joaquin River to increase flows in the Delta to protect endangered fish.
“It’s a very difficult challenge because it appears that the SWRCB wants to increase the flows in the Sacramento River. That water has to come from somewhere, and it looks like it’s going to come from the irrigation districts. Unless we can do environmental projects on the River to improve habitat for fish and re-manage our water, we have water at risk,” said Bransford.
Bransford, who is also a rice farmer, said “Everyone has their own science regarding protecting those species. We’re talking about salmon, steelhead trout, and of course the smelt.”
“The difficulty is, we believe they’re using a lot of old science. There is newer science that suggests there are better ways to manage this. And, if something does not work, then you change. You just don’t throw more water at it,” he noted.
“We think habitat improvements are important in providing refuge for the fish,” Bransford explained. “We’re looking at flushing rice water into the rivers to provide food. Currently, the rivers are pretty sterile because they are just channels now. If we could apply flows from rice into the rivers like we did for the Delta Smelt this summer, you’re providing food for smelt.”
Bransford noted the Northern California irrigation districts work with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to increase flows in certain areas of the Sacramento River at certain times. “Our irrigation district managers work with the Bureau to provide flushing flows on the upper Sacramento.” These flows clean out diseased gravel beds in the absence of natural high water flows.”
“So they used some extra water late March of this year,” Bransford elaborated, “to just turn the gravel over to freshen it up. It did help the fish, particularly the salmon,” said Bransford.
Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID), according to its website, is dedicated to providing reliable, affordable water supplies to its landowners and water users, while ensuring the environmental and economic viability of the region. As the largest irrigation district in the Sacramento Valley, GCID has a long history of serving farmers and the agricultural community and maintaining critical wildlife habitat. The District fulfills its mission of efficiently and effectively managing and delivering water through an ever-improving delivery system and responsible policies, while maintaining a deep commitment to sustainable practices. Looking ahead, GCID will remain focused on continuing to deliver a reliable and sustainable water supply by positioning itself to respond proactively, strategically and responsibly to California’s ever-changing water landscape.
Through a competitive joint pilot grant program, the Agricultural Water Use Efficiency and State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) jointly intend to demonstrate the potential multiple benefits of conveyance enhancements combined with on-farm agricultural water use efficiency improvements and greenhouse gas reductions.
The grant funding provided in this joint program is intended to address multiple goals including:
Are these competitive grants promoted by DWR and CDFA providing financial support for further compliance or insulting to farmers who have already met and exceeded these stockpiling regulations? Or both?
I would like to address each goal, one by one.
I challenge DWR and CDFA to find one California farmer who is using water inefficiently or without regard to conservation. Grant or no grant, many farmers in the state have lost most of their contracted surface water deliveries due to the Endangered Species Act, which serves to save endangered species, an important goal we all share, but does so at any cost.
In addition, DWR is now threatening to take 40 percent of the surface water from the Tuolumne River and other tributaries of the San Joaquin River from February 1 to June 30, every year, to increase flows to the Delta to help save the declining smelt and salmon. This will severely curtail water deliveries to the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) and Turlock Irrigation District (TID)—population centers as well as critical farm areas.
This proposal, which disregards legal landowner water rights and human need, would force MID and TID to dedicate 40 percent of surface water flows during the defined time period every year, with no regulatory sunset, for beneficial fish and wildlife uses and salinity control. The proposal disregards other scientifically acknowledged stressors such as predatory nonnative non-native striped bass and largemouth bass, partially treated sewage from Delta cities, and, according to the Bay Delta Fish & Wildlife Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest Region, invasive organisms, exotic species of zooplankton and a voracious plankton-eating clam in the Delta from foreign ships that historically dumped their ballast in San Francisco waters.
While many farmers have fallowed their farmland, other farmers across the state have resorted to reliance on groundwater to keep their permanent crops (trees and vines) alive. The new DWR proposal to divert 40 percent of MID and TID surface water will force hundreds of growers in this region—the only groundwater basin in the Valley that is not yet critically overdrafted—to use more groundwater.
In a joint statement, MID and TID said, “Our community has never faced a threat of this proportion. MID and TID have continued to fight for the water resource that was entrusted to us 129 years ago.”
Have regulators forgotten Assembly Bill (AB) 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, that requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent (back to 1990 levels) by 2050? Ag is already accommodating this regulation.
Now Governor Brown has signed SB-1383, “Short-lived climate pollutants: methane emissions: dairy and livestock: organic waste: landfills” into law that mandates a 25 percent reduction in methane emissions from cow burps, flatulence and manure from all dairy cows and other cattle to achieve the 1990 statewide greenhouse gas emissions level by 2020.
Now CDFA and DWR are asking for grant requests to reduce greenhouse emissions even further. Really?
Ironically, farmers want to reduce their groundwater needs because groundwater has always functioned in the state as a water savings bank for emergency use during droughts and not as a primary source of irrigation. But massive non-drought related federal and state surface water cutbacks have forced farmers to use more groundwater.
Golden State farmers are doing everything possible not to further elevate nitrates in their groundwater. Some nitrate findings left by farmers from generations ago are difficult to clean up.
But the DWR and CFA grant wants California agriculture to do more!
Virtually, no one is more sustainable than a multi-generational farmer. Each year, family farmers improve their land in order to produce robust crops, maintain their livelihoods, enrich the soil for the long term, and fortify the health and safety of their agricultural legacy for future generations.
California farmers will continue to do all they can to improve irrigation methods and track their crop protection product use.
And so, I ask again, is this beneficial or double jeopardy for California farming? Or both?
Will the 5 Percenters—the Federal water users in California who were restricted by a 95% water allocation reduction this year—actually receive the promised 5% allocation? This scenario follows a more-than-average winter rainfall and snowfall throughout the state.
Ryan Jacobsen, executive director and CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said, “arguably it’s turned out to be much worse. Right now, for the initial 5% allocation to even be questionable right now is just absolutely insane. It all boils down to the amount of water being held up in Lake Shasta for fish purposes, which has put a major stranglehold on what’s happening down here at this point,” noted Jacobsen.
At Shasta Reservoir, a keystone reservoir of the Central Valley Project, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation essentially discharged flood releases earlier this year just to make room for the water that was expected to come in. Shasta now stands at a above average full for this time of year, because the Feds are holding all the water for release for salmon later.
This is part of the plan to have cold water available to release for the salmon. And Shasta actually has 30 percent more cold water than what they thought, and water leaders are pushing hard to get the Feds to release it for agriculture.
And San Luis Reservoir is at a dead-pool status, which insures no more water can be sent south from that reservoir. Dead pool means no more water can be drawn from San Luis Reservoir, which does not bode well.
Jacobsen said, “This means our federal contractors’ 5% is in question. And that’s the irony: we were looking at such a strong year—or at least an average year [of precipitation]—and ending up now where our meager water supply is in jeopardy. This is incomprehensible and inexcusable from the federal side.”
Shasta has both federal and state water, and the federal side is essentially nothing at this point, explained Jacobsen. “Farmers rely upon San Luis Reservoir water for July and August irrigation, “and the water is essentially gone at this point,” he said. “It just shows you the major mismanagement we’re seeing from the federal side and the inability to capture water even when it is available, and not at the demise of any of these species.”
Jacobsen reiterated, “Back when the precipitation was falling [last winter], water was available at some extraordinarily high levels; yet, we never saw the increase in pumping that we would have expected under the normal conditions. “Of course, we’ve seen less pumping this year for the farmers and the cities south of the Delta,” noted Jacobsen. “During the times of the rainfall this year, it was essentially excuse, after excuse, after excuse. Some newer excuses pertained to why the pumps were not operating or operating at a very reduced capacity,” explained Jacobsen.
“The situation has been frustrating for a couple of years, but the anger continues to build because right now, this is not a ‘Mother Nature’ issue. It is completely a man-made regulatory drought that is, again, just incompetency at its best.”
“When we talk about the water stored behind Shasta [Dam] right now, really it is for the fish,” noted Jacobsen. “The most-watched fishery, at this point, is the salmon fishery. We’re in year four of this drought, but when it comes to the critical side of fish, the salmon essentially operates in three-year cycles. The last two years have been arguably two of the worst years on record for them, and this potential third year is a kind of make-it-or-break-it for salmon fisheries in the Delta region.”
Unfortunately, per Jacobsen, many decisions have been based on guesstimates. “There are a lot of folks who think we need to reserve all of this cold water for a fishery that may or may not be responding to what has been done in the past for this [contracted irrigation] water that has been given up for those purposes,” Jacobsen explained. “Right now, I think we’re doing a lot of experiments at the cost of jobs and employment, and most importantly, the farms here in the San Joaquin Valley. The frustration is that science is really not playing a big part in it. A lot of decisions are just simply, ‘We think we should be doing this versus what the science actually says we should be doing.’”
Jacobsen’s leading frustration is that all that water taken from farmers and given to fish has not helped the fish at all. In fact, the smelt and salmon numbers continue to decline. “I talk about growing frustration and anger from so many folks in the last couple of years… specifically because it hasn’t made a difference,” said Jacobsen. “An exorbitant amount of water has been given up for these fisheries, [endangered fish populations] continue to decline and crash, and as we’ve been saying for years, it is beyond time to look at just the water exporters,” he added.
Jacobsen maintains other stressors should be seriously investigated. “Many other issues taken place in the Delta should be pulled into play here, but again the regulators and the environmentalists continue to look only at the exporters as the sole issue for fish decline. There are so many other factors out there that need to be looked at,” he said.
Highly recommenced reading: “We are the 5 percenters, stretching our water supplies to get by,” by Joe Del Bosque, Contributing writer, The Orange County Register, July 14, 2016.
Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) TODAY called on President Obama to direct federal agencies “to maximize pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the maximum extent allowed under the Endangered Species Act and biological opinions.”
Feinstein wrote in her letter to the president: “I believe that this year’s El Niño has highlighted a fundamental problem with our water system: A dogmatic adherence to a rigid set of operating criteria that continues to handcuff our ability to rebuild our reserves. We need a more nimble system. That’s why I included $150 million the past two years in the Energy and Water budget—so that decisions would be based on real-time data, rather than relying on intuition.”
Full text of the letter follows:
March 24, 2016
The Honorable Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
I ask you to direct the Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Marine Fisheries Service to maximize pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the maximum extent allowed under the Endangered Species Act and biological opinions. Water flows in the Sacramento River are the highest they have been in four years. Just last week, flows in the Sacramento were as high as 76,000 cubic feet per second. We’ve only seen flows that high twice in the past ten years, and not once during this drought. Yet the Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service are now considering reducing pumping due to concerns about larval smelt.
Despite these high flows, rather than pumping as much water as possible without undue harm to the smelt, pumping levels remained constant for the past month (see Chart B). Coupled with the fact that only three individual smelt were caught at the pumps this year, and that the most recent trawls revealed no Delta smelt in the south Delta, it seems to me that the agencies operate the system in a manner that may be contrary to the available data, culled from what is already a limited monitoring regime. I understand that the biological opinions impose a ceiling of -5,000 cubic feet per second, but the agencies have the discretion to exercise at least some flexibility to pump above that level.
To put this all in context, between January 1 and March 6 last year, 1.5 million acre-feet of water flowed through the Delta and 745,000 acre-feet were pumped out. During the same period this year, 5.5 million acre-feet of water flowed through the Delta, but only 852,000 acre-feet were pumped out (see Chart A). If we can’t increase pumping during an El Niño year, then when else can we?
The agencies have also put California and the communities that depend on this water in a Catch-22: Pumping is reduced when there are concerns about the presence of smelt caught as far away as 17 miles from the pumps. Yet agencies will also reduce pumping due to the absence of smelt, based on the idea that historically low smelt populations make detection difficult.
I believe that this year’s El Niño has highlighted a fundamental problem with our water system: A dogmatic adherence to a rigid set of operating criteria that continues to handcuff our ability to rebuild our reserves. We need a more nimble system. That’s why I included $150 million the past two years in the Energy and Water budget—so that decisions would be based on real-time data, rather than relying on intuition.
There are real-world consequences to the decisions being made in the Delta. 69 communities in the Southern San Joaquin Valley reported significant water supply and quality issues. And land is caving, bridges collapsing, as a result of overdrawn ground wells and subsidence. That’s why we need to make sure we’re using every possible tool to make the right choices. Basing pumping decisions on better science and real-time monitoring is the least we can do.
United States Senator
By Courtney Steward with California Ag Today
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual (CCM), commented on the recent upsurge in negative public opinion on the state’s agricultural water usage, “They don’t want the attention focused on their cherished agenda item, which is environmentalism.”
“There are good reasons to protect the environment,” Nelsen explained, “we don’t want salt-water intrusion in the Delta and we don’t want fish to become extinct. However, we do want a realistic approach to solving environmental problems starting with science-based assessments, partial limits and sustainable solutions.”
Nelsen said “’sustainability’ varies depending on who you talk to. “Ask a farmer and they will tell you that sustainability is about producing a legacy, ensuring that future generations too will be able to cultivate a viable crop on the same land. Sustainability is about learning from the past to prepare for the future and fulfilling an inherent responsibility to the environment and to society, working with the land in order to feed the world today and in the future. The California citrus industry has not only sustained, but thrived for over 125 years.”
“So, how do we solve this complex issue of a limited water supply for competing needs with solutions that deliver sustainable results with accountability from all parties involved? Nelsen stated, “You want a thorough assessment of the current situation; are our current solutions solving our water problems?”
“When you talk about restoring the San Joaquin River,” Nelsen explained, “our current solution is not biologically viable. The smelt population is not recovering; it continues to decline. Let’s honestly ask ourselves ‘is this solution effective or is it time to quit wasting money, quit wasting water and try another science-based solution?”