Science Shows Increased Water Flow Doesn’t Save Fish, Paul Wenger Says
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
California Ag Today is continuing our coverage of the State Water Resources Control Board’s plan to take 40 percent of the water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers to feed into the San Joaquin River to increase flows for salmon. There is major pushback by affected farmers. We spoke with Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, at their 98th annual meeting in Monterey this week. He farms almonds and walnuts in that area, and he and his family would be seriously impacted; they would be forced into more groundwater pumping.
“It just seems the same old adage,” Wenger said. “If we put more water in the rivers, it’s going to be better for the fish. We know that it hasn’t worked with biological opinions. We know it hasn’t worked in the Sacramento, it hasn’t worked in the delta. We need to go after some of these other predatory species: the striped bass. They’re an introduced species.”
Wenger said there’s a lot of data saying that just won’t work. “The studies have been done, the science is out there. Just to say that we’re going to keep adding water to the problem [and] we’re going to get a different result is ridiculous. We have a finite resource of water today. We have growing needs for it for urban [and] foreign environmental flows, but also for farming and manufacturing.”
Wenger believes that the Water Board always makes rules quickly are not invested in the outcome.
“As I tell the folks, you come up with the ideas, but you’re not invested. You’re investing my future. You’re investing my resources, and other farmers’, but when we have these environmental groups say, ‘This is a solution.’ Why don’t you put your money up?”
California Ag Today conducted an extensive interview with Les Grober, assistant deputy director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB, Water Board) Division of Water Rights. We published Part 1, “Water Board’s Point of View on Increasing San Joaquin River Flows,” on November 28, 2016.
Grober explained the Water Board’s water diversion plan to adjust the flow objectives on the San Joaquin River to protect fish and wildlife. The plan, specifically, is to divert 40 percent of water flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers that flow into the lower San Joaquin River.
California Ag Today: We asked Mr. Grober to explain how the Federal Water users on the Westside of Fresno and Kings Counties were granted a mere 5 percent allocation this year, and why many did not receive their full 5 percent.
Grober: The 5 percent allocation is due to the junior water rights of those growers and to the interconnections of so many things — priority of right, hydrologic conditions, and minimal protections or fish and wildlife. Anyone who thinks it’s all due to fish is simplifying a very complex situation.
California Ag Today: Regarding the water hearings that are scheduled over the next few months, is the Water Board trying to give information to farmers and others would be affected by the decreased water should the Water Board’s proposal go through?
Grober: The ultimate goal is to make people even more prepared to provide comments to the Board at the scheduled hearings. It’s part of a public process where, if we did not get our economic figures right, we want [accurate] information from the stakeholder to make it right.
We thought we did a good job in an economic analysis on how we thought the proposed taking of 40 percent water would affect the communities and farmers. We clearly heard from many people who thought we did not do a good job, and my response is: Good, show us why, make a proposal and take it to the Water Board hearings, and then we can adjust it.
California Ag today: The Water Board has a 3,100-page report all about saving the salmon.
Grober: The reason we have a big report is because we are making a proposal and we’ve shown our work. Although it is work for people to look at it and review it, we have tried to make it easy so that people can see if we have made mistakes, if there are things that are left out or if we have made an incorrect assumption. That’s why we’ve shared it with everybody and here’s your opportunity for setting us straight.
It won’t help to vilify different people who are making good use of the water or to vilify or disparage the implementation of our laws and what we are required to do. We have a great process I think, as hard as it is, a public process where we can work these things out in the open, just to use it and deal with each other professionally.
-Les Grober, assistant deputy director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB, Water Board) Division of Water Rights
California Ag Today: We are sure you are getting a lot of information from farmers and city leaders about this not being a good use of the water.
Grober: These problems are not so simple that they could be reduced to a sound bite. I think we would have solved the salmon problems by now, but because we are in the drought situation, we are dealing with a precious resource, which is water. Everybody wants the water but there’s not enough to do all the things we would like to do with it.
California Ag Today: But there are many people in California who feel that more water for fish instead of farmers is reprehensible.
Grober: It won’t help to vilify different people who are making good use of the water or to vilify or disparage the implementation of our laws and what we are required to do. We have a great process I think, as hard as it is, a public process where we can work these things out in the open, just to use it and deal with each other professionally.
California Ag Today: But we’ve heard from experts that have been studying this, that the increased flows have not really helped these species. Do you have proof that they have?
Grober: It’s hard to show proof one way or the other because recently we have not increased flows to see what effect it would have. That seems to be a notion that is out there, that we have somehow done something to increase flows in recent years, and that’s simply not the case.
If anything, flows have gone down. And in the recent drought years, as I said, even the minimal flows that were required were adjusted downward. You would have to show me that evidence that flows have gone up and there has been no response to those higher flows. I do not believe that there is any.
California Ag Today: So, the Water Board wants 40 percent of unimpaired flows?
Grober: When we say the requirement is 30 percent to 50 percent of unimpaired flows, it is 30 percent to 50 percent of that amount, which means just the opposite. It means that 50 to 70 percent of [flows] for February through June would be available for consumptive use.
That is frequently misunderstood and turned around. That is still from February through June, so it means more than 50 to 70 percent since other times of the year this water is available for consumptive use.
California Ag Today: Is the Water Board looking at the fact that if the water is needed for the species, it is going to force these growers to use more groundwater? That is a direction in which we do not want to go, especially in a region that has not yet had critical overdrafts. How does the Water Board look at that domino effect forced on these growers in order to survive, stay in business and produce the food in this major Ag production region?
Grober: Implementing that 30 to 50 percent of unimpaired flows would mean less surface water available for diversion. So our analysis of the potential environmental effects and overall effects of the program, based on recent drought information and other information, shows we would see increased groundwater pumping.
California Ag Today: Is the increased pumping weighted at all in the proposal, because overdraft groundwater pumping is not sustainable?
Grober: By our analysis, the area is already in overdraft.
California Ag Today: What? Why would there be overdraft pumping in an area that has great irrigation districts such as Modesto and Oakdale Irrigation Districts delivering surface water? We did not think growers in those districts would be overdrafting.
Grober: Sure. Within those irrigation districts themselves, they are not overdrafting. That’s why the analysis we do goes into that level of detail. The irrigation districts that already have a source of surface water actually apply much more water than they need just for the crop, so they are recharging groundwater within those districts, and even with this proposal, would continue to recharge groundwater. It is all those areas outside of those districts that don’t have access to surface water that are pumping groundwater.
California Ag Today: There is a lot more pumping of groundwater on the east side near the foothills.
Grober: Based on the information that we have, the total area — not just the districts that have access to surface water — but the total area, is already overdrafting groundwater. And there are many areas on the east side of these districts now, up into areas that were previously not irrigated, converting now to orchard crops. So with the information we have, there are large areas of production using water from the basin. The entire area is to some extent pumping more groundwater than there is recharge.
California Ag Today: We’ve been concern about this.
Grober: That’s why the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is going to be good, because the local areas are going to have to get on top of that information and on top of the management.
Les Grober Explains Increasing San Joaquin River Flows
This is part 1 of a 2-part series.
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
California Ag Today conducted an extensive interview with Les Grober, assistant deputy director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB, Water Board) Division of Water Rights, regarding the Water Board’s proposal to adjust the flow objectives on the San Joaquin River to protect fish and wildlife. The plan, specifically, is to divert 40 percent of water flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers that flow into the lower San Joaquin River.
Hearing on the Potential Changes to the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay-Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta Estuary: San Joaquin River Flows and Southern Delta Water Quality and on the Adequacy of the Supporting Recirculated Draft Substitute Environmental Document.
Hearing begins at 9:00 a.m. on the following dates:
November 29, 2016 Joe Serna Jr. CalEPA Headquarters Building, Byron Sher Auditorium, 1001 I Street, 2nd Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814
December 16, 2016 Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, Main Hall, 525 N. Center Street, Stockton, CA 95202
December 19, 2016 Multicultural Arts Center, 645 W. Main Street, Merced, CA 95340
December 20,2016 Modesto Centre Plaza, Tuolumne River Room, 1000 K Street, Modesto, CA 95354
January 3, 2017 Joe Serna Jr. CalEPA Headquarters Building, Coastal Hearing Room, 1001 I Street, 2nd Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814
California Ag Today: At a recent public workshop in Sacramento, Les Grober, you cited some statistics that show the Water Board really has not done a lot—or much of anything particularly—in the San Joaquin River in terms of helping salmon. Is this accurate?
Grober: Yes. I did not discuss specifically the flow benefits or the fish benefits, but I did explain there are times between February and June when flows are critical for salmon. During the months of March and April, especially, less than 10 percent of the water flows than would be there normally if you were not storing it or diverting it.
California Ag Today: So the Water Board proposes taking 40 percent from the rivers to help the salmon?
Grober: I posed the question, “If there is a species that has adapted to 100 percent flow, how likely would it be that it could be successful with less than 10 percent of that?” If you look at the overall statistics between 1984 and 2009 for the three tributaries (Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers), the average flow during the February through June period was 40 percent on the Stanislaus, 21 percent on the Tuolumne, and 26 percent on the Merced.
California Ag Today: So you need water from all three tributaries to accomplish the objective?
Grober: Currently, there are flow objectives only for the San Joaquin River at Vernalis where the San Joaquin River flows into the Delta. The current objective skews the flows so they are coming from just the Stanislaus River, which has problems achieving those flows at all times because it is all coming from one location. It also does not achieve the fish protection goals because it’s all coming from the same location.
So, based on the core science, we are proposing to establish objectives on the three salmon-bearing tributaries to the San Joaquin River. This is about reasonably protecting fish and wildlife in the San Joaquin River.
California Ag Today: So the Water Board is not trying to protect the salmon at any cost, which is the mandate from the Endangered Species Act?
Grober: The proposal is not establishing flows that provide absolute protection. We are establishing flows to reasonably protect species—in this case—fish and wildlife.
California Ag Today: The Water Board earlier proposed the need for 60 percent to be unimpaired flows?
Grober: The science developed over the years has shown that if you were not going to consider any other uses of water, like agriculture, drinking water or anything else, the number you would need is 60 percent of unimpaired flow.
California Ag Today: Due to agriculture pushback, the new goal is 40 percent?
Grober: That is why what we are doing now is very hard. We’re doing the balancing that says we have the science that shows the need for increased flows. We have all the information that shows how important the current uses of water are now for agriculture and municipal supply and hydropower. so how do you come up with a balance that takes into account all of that information?
California Ag Today: We have been following closely the extraordinarily increased flows through the Delta and to the Pacific Ocean, which seemed to be No. 1, a total waste of freshwater, and No. 2, at least a few acre-feet could have been pumped into the San Luis Reservoir for cities and farmers.
Grober: It would be interesting to see the numbers that you are citing because, during this recent drought, in particular, there have been greatly reduced flows throughout the system—not in any way—by any stretch—increased flows. In fact, the Water Board approved emergency change petitions not to increase flows, but to do just the opposite.
In general, they have relaxed or shifted downward required flows so there would be more water available to be smartly used for multiple purposes, not just for fish and wildlife, but also to get more water for public interest uses.
California Ag Today: We know that flood control pulse flows are difficult to capture, but it seems that some of that great volume of water could be pumped southward.
Grober: Many times, people will fail to notice or acknowledge that during periods of high rainfall and high flow, a lot of water goes out because it cannot be captured. So very large quantities of water go out because of flood flows and high flows.
This is not to say that there are no constraints, at times, on what can be diverted or exported to protect fish and wildlife due to objectives, the State Boards, the Water Quality Control Plan, or biological opinions. But much of that water that people look at and say, ‘Why is that all going out?’ — a lot of that is flood flows that cannot be captured. So it ends up looking like a very big number, but it is not a number that can be captured because, as you can imagine during wet years and high flow times, it is almost too much. People can’t capture it.
California Ag Today: So there is not even an effort to export that water to those who need it — farmers and communities?
Grober: Like I said, there have been constraints on export pumping. But those constraints are intended to provide some protections for fish and wildlife, while at the same time they are opportunities for getting water for other uses. So I see a lot of overstatements.
California Ag Today: Again, when there are pulse flows, why can’t we collect them and exported them? Why can’t we just turn up the pumps to capture some of the extra water moving through the Delta to export it to farms and cities?
Grober: There are constraints on what are called reverse flows in Old and Middle Rivers (OMR), which is a critical area of Smelt risk. This is part of the biological opinions intended to protect smelt and salmon at critical times that happen to coincide occasionally with higher flow events.
That is one of those times when it’s kind of striking a balance as well. The flows are still not optimal for the protection of the species, but certainly, from the water supply perspective, they are not seen as optimal for the water supply. That makes all of this so very hard. How do you strike that balance?
California Ag Today: You talk about striking a balance. It seems that the environmental side gets nearly 100 percent of what they need and Ag gets nearly zero.
Grober: Where is Ag getting zero?
California A Today: There are Federal Districts on Fresno County’s Westside that for several years have received zero water allocation. This past season, they were promised 5 percent, but they were not able to get the entire amount.
Grober: If I may, it is clear that you have a certain view on this.
California Ag Today: Absolutely. It just does not seem that agriculture has a seat at the table.
We’ll continue Part Two of this series tomorrow. We’ll discuss, among other things, that if the proposal goes through, farmers would be forced to use more groundwater.
Michael Boccadoro a spokesperson for the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, commented on the SWRCB: “They need to be pushed back. They need to be told no.” Boccadoro explained the water in question represents about 400,000 acre-feet taken from communities, businesses and farms. Ironically 400,000 acre-feet is roughly equivalent to the capacity of Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir (360,400 acre-feet) that funnels water, unabated, to San Francisco.
“This is only Phase One of the Boards’ decision,” said Boccadoro. “This is going to eventually encompass the Sacramento River; this is just the beginning. This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination the only potential impact agriculture would feel,” he said.
Boccadoro, like other people in the industry, cannot fathom why the SWRCB needs to take this water when it doesn’t seem to be doing anything beneficial for the endangered fish species. “This issue of continuing to take water that is providing no benefit—or no clear benefit—for fish, while we do nothing [to mitigate] the other stressors that are having a huge impact on the fish, has to stop,” Boccadoro said.
Boccadoro noted, “It looks like Governor Brown has it in for farmers. We have problems with groundwater and increasing water scarcity in the state, and the result of this [plan] would be increased groundwater pumping—until they tell us we can’t pump groundwater. At that point, they are basically telling us, ‘You can’t farm any more.'”
“It’s a huge problem, said Boccadoro. “For whatever reason, it appears that the Brown administration has declared war on California agriculture. Enough is enough. We need to push back hard against the Water Board’s decisions,” noted Boccadoro.
“This is as good a place to fight as any as I can think of,” Boccadoro explained. “We need to start the fight and continue the fight, which is the only way it’s ever going to be turned back. The regulators and environmental groups must address the other stressors [to the endangered species]. Taking water from agriculture has not corrected the problem.
In the meantime Boccadoro hopes the farmers are taking notice. “I sure hope they’re willing to come up here [to Sacramento] and demand that the state not take their water,” he said.
Along with working on water issues, Jennifer Lester Moffitt, Deputy Secretary for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, addresses soil quality. Muffin said, “We need to do everything we can do increase water holding capacity so that when do irrigate, when it does rain, we are able to retain that water in the soil. And there are so many additional benefits, I need to look up the exact number, but roughly half the biodiversity of the earth is in the soil.”
While many research budgets have already been stretched thin to deal with the drought, soil research has been funded largely by the healthy soils initiative from the USDA.
Moffitt explained, “Potential state funding sources might be green house gas reduction revenue, but in order to use that money, we would have to show carbon offsets. If we were able to do that, we could show demonstration projects and develop incentives for farmers to sequester carbon, and the impact could be immense. I mean, we have 9 million acres of farmland in the state, and even if we get a small percentage of growers to adopt these practices, we could really make a huge impact.”
Moffitt stated, “You know, I think definitely there are benefits to managing the soil, studying the drought and looking at how we can be more resilient. Particularly for agriculture during drought, maintaining excellent soil health provides a huge benefit–I think a dual benefit–along with mitigating climate change. There’s a whole handful that healthy soils can do.”
Moffitt also mentioned other departments involved in the health soils initiative, “The Department of Conservation is working on this, especially with their Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program (FMMP).” According to the The Department of Conservation’s Division of Land Resource Protection (DLRP) website, FMMP “produces maps and statistical data for analyzing impacts on California’s agricultural resources. Agricultural land is rated according to soil quality and irrigation status; the best quality land is called Prime Farmland. The maps are updated every two years with the use of a computer mapping system, aerial imagery, public review, and field reconnaissance.”
“CalRecycle,” continued Moffitt, “especially with regard to compost and their goal to reduce green waste in landfills by composting and applying it on agricultural land, is a win-win, all around. Also, the Water Board, Air Resources Board, Department of Water Resources and the land they manage, are really part of a holistic approach.”
Farmers who are already reeling from a lack of water to irrigate their crops this summer are being hit with an annual acreage fee to meet a mandated program to monitor water runoff from irrigated lands.
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in September of 2013 adopted new waste discharge requirements to protect ground and surface water from irrigated agricultural discharges for the Tulare Lake Basin area. That led to a plan to monitor groundwater and what impacts irrigation has on that groundwater.
Growers who irrigate agricultural lands for commercial purposes within the Tulare Lake Basin area must comply, but they do have a choice. They can either deal individually and directly with the Water Board, or they can join one of several regional coalitions that have been formed to assist growers in meeting all the requirements.
In the Porterville area, that coalition is the Tule Basin Water Quality Coalition. There is also a coalition in Kern County, as well as the Kaweah Basin Water Quality Coalition to the north. Some growers who have irrigated lands in both, will have to sign up with both, said Tulare County Supervisor and citrus grower Allen Ishida.
The deadline to sign up is rapidly approaching. Growers must sign up with their local coalition by Aug. 4, or they will be stuck dealing directly with the Water Board and having to monitor their groundwater on their own.
“If you received the letter, you better pay it,” stressed Ishida, explaining that monitoring even just a 10-acre plot could cost several thousand dollars a year.
The plan was put into place to improve the quality of groundwater, but Ishida said “They’re regulating without the base science.”
He contends the cause of nitrates in the ground, which is very common in Tulare County, has not been pinned down and that the Water Board is incorrectly blaming farmers. “We’re not the only ones contributing to high nitrates,” said Ishida, agreeing that some nitrates naturally occur, but no one has determined how much is natural.
David DeGroot, who is with 4 Creeks, an engineering firm working for the Tule Basin Coalition, said the only farming operations exempt from this latest order are dairy farmers because they are already under an irrigated management plan.
He said the basin began monitoring surface water in 2003 and now that has been extended to water pumped from the underground.
Farmers got the Water Board to agree to the coalition idea. “Rather than do this individually, maybe we can form a coalition to do the work,” said DeGroot of the idea. “It is a lot more cost-effective.”
The coalition will handle all the monitoring and reporting, which DeGroot said is extensive. Also, it will deal with the Water Board.
The cost for the Tule Basin Coalition is $5 per acre of irrigated land and a $100 participation fee. Both are annual costs. DeGroot and Ishida said the cost for the Kaweah Basin is higher. DeGroot said having to deal with the Water Board is much more expensive.
If a person ignores the order, then there are hefty fines. DeGroot also said if a grower misses the Aug. 4 deadline, they are prohibited from signing up later unless the Water Board grants them permission. Either way, not signing up by Aug. 4 will mean the grower will have to deal with the Water Board, and probably face a fine for not signing up.
According to the state, the Tulare Lake Basin Plan identifies the greatest long-term problem facing the Basin as the increase in salinity in groundwater. Because of the closed nature of the Tulare Lake Basin, there is little subsurface outflow. Thus salts accumulate within the Basin due to the importation and evaporative use of water. A large portion of this increase is due to the intensive use of soil and water resources by irrigated agriculture.
However, the order covers the entire San Joaquin Valley. DeGroot said the total acreage of the Tule Basin is 600,000 acres, of which 350,000 aces are irrigated ag land. He said basically the boundaries are roughly Avenue 196 on the north and the Kern County line on the south, the foothills on the east and the Tulare/Kings county line on the west.
The Water Board said the order requires “the implementation of management practices to achieve compliance with applicable water quality objectives and requiring the prevention of nuisance. The Order requires implementation of a monitoring and reporting program to determine effects of discharges on water quality and the effectiveness of management practices designed to comply with applicable water quality objectives.”
DeGroot said the initial objective is to summarize conditions in a basin. “Once those are approved, then we’ll go out and start monitoring wells,” he said. The plan is to test a well every nine sections.
So far, DeGroot said the sign-ups have gone well, but they know a lot of landowners have held off. As of late last week, he estimated 65 percent of farmers have joined the coalition.
With California’s driest months ahead, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today issued an executive order to strengthen the state’s ability to manage water and habitat effectively in drought conditions and called on all Californians to redouble their efforts to conserve water.
“The driest months are still to come in California and extreme drought conditions will get worse,” said Governor Brown. “This order cuts red tape to help get water to farmers more quickly, ensure communities have safe drinking water, protect vulnerable species and prepare for an extreme fire season. I call on every city, every community, every Californian to conserve water in every way possible.”
In January, the Governor declared a drought state of emergency. Since then, state water officials say that reservoirs, rainfall totals and the snowpack remain critically low. Current electronic readings show the snowpack’s statewide water content at just 16 percent of average.
In the order, Governor Brown directs the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board to expedite approvals of voluntary water transfers to assist farmers. He also directs the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to accelerate monitoring of drought impacts on winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, and to execute habitat restoration projects that will help fish weather the on-going drought.
To respond to the increased threat of wildfire season, the order streamlines contracting rules for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and CALFIRE for equipment purchases and enables landowners to quickly clear brush and dead, dying or diseased trees that increase fire danger.
The order also calls on Californians and California businesses to take specific actions to avoid wasting water, including limiting lawn watering and car washing; recommends that schools, parks and golf courses limit the use of potable water for irrigation; and asks that hotels and restaurants give customers options to conserve water by only serving water upon request and other measures. The order also prevents homeowner associations from fining residents that limit their lawn watering and take other conservation measures.
The order provides a limited waiver of the California Environmental Quality Act for several actions that will limit harm from the drought. This waiver will enable these urgently needed actions to take place quickly and will remain in place through the end of 2014.
California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Congressmen John Garamendi and Jim Costa sent ajoint letter on March 5, yesterday, to Tom Howard, Executive Director, California State Water Resources Control Board urging them to delay issuing a proposed order prioritizing water deliveries throughout the state, expected to be handed down as early as next week, until at least March 21.
In their statement, posted by the Bay Planning Coalition, the lawmakers urge the Water Board to delay its “extraordinarily far-reaching proposed order”. . . “to make sure it is correctly calibrated to minimize the potentially devastating effects on many Californians.”
They acknowledge the coordinated efforts between difference levels of government, but urge the Board to “avoid catastrophic reductions of water deliveries to California agriculture”.
Continuing, allowing more time would provide the Water Board with the best available information for these “complex water delivery decisions that could affect large parts of California, especially those regions that are integral to our nation’s agricultural economy.”
“We acknowledge that the Board is eager to issue a decision so that senior water rights holders do not plant crops with the expectation of receiving a 40 percent CVP water allocation when public health and safety considerations may require a significant cutback.”
Finally, they ask that the water decision “be formulated with great care so that its burdens do not unduly fall on those who have already had to give up a great deal.”