Water Diversion Lessons from Australia
November 4, 2016
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.
“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.”