At the heart of agriculture is the struggle for water

North and south, California farmers struggle regularly to get enough water to nourish their crops. But even after a wet winter that left reservoirs full and rivers swollen, the fundamental question remains: How can a reliable supply of water be assured season to season to feed a state of 38 million people?

Not easily.

Largely dependent on fickle supplies, California’s farmers run up against nature, politics and the law to irrigate their fields. They also face each other, as those with senior water rights have priority over those with rights that are lower down the food chain.

In dry years – and most of them have been dry until recently – the amount of flowing water available is down, while options to get more water, such as from the ground, may be limited.  

In wet years, short-term water is available but other problems arise.  “We rely on snow melt,” said Burt Bundy, a Los Molinos farmer with orchards, a catfish farm and beef cattle. “But we don’t have any storage. The alternative to some people is pumping groundwater, but that is kind of an unknown here,” said Bundy, a former Tehama County supervisor.

Down south the situation is different, although the ultimate issue of water availability is the same.  

The chokepoint is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta east of San Francisco, the vast estuary and marsh crisscrossed by aging levees and dotted with farms and small towns. Through the Delta, water flows from the north and east and heads south to state and federal pumps that suck the water up and push it ultimately into the California Aqueduct. About half of the state’s drinking water flows through the delta.

There are myriad issues in the fragile delta. Except for the seven-year period from 1928-1935, the delta reportedly is at its saltiest level in thousands of years, experts say. The pumps create reverse flows, confusing fish, or suck the fish into the machinery, killing them. The flows through the delta can be slowed, or even stopped, building stagnation and bacteria that are difficult to remove.

Court-ordered and regulatory protections for the delta’s environment require water to be retained – water that otherwise could be used for growing crops. Environmentalists believe that the Delta’s unique ecosystem would be devastated without controls.  For farmers, it seems as if the rules are tilted against them, although those in the delta have the most senior water rights in the state.  

But whether farmers rely on state or federal water contracts, or whether they rely on water purchased through exchanges, the bottom line is that farming is chancy.

“The farmers are very uncertain about their supplies, even if the dams are full,” said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. “There has been no new development of surface storage or underground storage. The whole debate has been over the sharing of scarcity, with the environmental use of water having a vastly superior right to the human use of water.”

Adding to the uncertainty is the water needed to meet environmental regulations.

“The immediate concern is how much more will be needed for environmental flows in the delta, especially if there is an alternative conveyance, such as a canal, a tunnel or whatever. What flows will be required out of the north?” said Tim Johnson, CEO of the California Rice Commission, which represents some 2,500 farms on 550,000 acres, most north of the delta. Johnson noted that his members are crucial to dozens of species, including the birds along the Pacific Flyway.

“So what is the impact on the ecosystem in the Sacramento Valley? It could be significant,” he added.

Surface storage – a euphemism for reservoirs – is anathema to most environmentalists, who believe the huge projects disturb the environment, waste resources and in the end don’t provide more water, anyway. Better alternatives include conservation and tight groundwater controls, they note.

But one fundamental problem in the state is that, on the natural, there is not enough water to go around for everybody. Some farmers see reservoirs as an obvious way to store water in wet years for use in dry years.

Down the Valley, the Westlands Water District – the largest irrigation district in the country – serves more than 700 farms and represents perhaps $1 billion annually in farm receipts, about a fifth of the cash yield in Fresno County, the nation’s richest agricultural county.

Westlands uses entirely federal water through the Central Valley Project, nearly 1.2 million acre-feet annually, so what happens in the delta directly affects Westlands.  And Westlands believes their flows are  pinched by environmental regulations.

The 600,000-acre district has seen the amount of water that it is contracted to receive through the CVP drop dramatically over the years. During 1978 through 1990, the average was about 92 percent of their allocation. Since then, the proportion has steadily declined. In 2009, the allocation had dropped to 43 percent. According to Westlands, the decline reflects court and regulatory decisions to divert water to protect fish, including winter-run salmon and the delta smelt, and to restore fish habitats.

“The key point is that the unreliable water supply is due to the ESA (Endangered Species Act) laws that have gone into effect,” said Westlands spokeswoman Gayle Holman.
“If there weren’t as many environmental regulations in place, we could have 15 percent more. Even in this record year, we have had flood control measures, reservoirs across the state are full and we have historical highs, but we are only allocated 80 percent. And that’s because of the environmental rules that protect fish species,” she said. “That is not a sustainable water supply to enable growers to continue providing the water that their crops need.”

Although Westlands has other issues unrelated to the Endangered Species Act – drainage problems and land out of production, for example – and it is not high on the CVP’s water-delivery priority list, the district believes environmental rules are particularly troubling.

But Westlands doesn’t get a lot of sympathy from environmentalists, or from the farmers in the Sacramento Valley and points north, where the water the southern district wants will come, in the end, from the northern water.

“They don’t get full deliveries all the time, in fact they never get them,” noted Ron Stork of the Friends of the River.  “There is just not enough water to go around to meet all the demands of the San Joaquin Valley. They are attempting to rewrite the rules for folks who currently have a higher priority than Westlands.”

“The water equality and environmental restrictions are meant to protect the delta and the ocean fisheries, too, which is a food-producing industry,” he added. “It is not an accident. Westlands was the last major CVP contractor to come on line. It is at the end of a long chain, and that means others with a higher priority get their water first.”

If too much gets diverted from the north to the south, the north could be forced to pump  it out of the ground. “Pretty soon, you end up with short supplies, and you don’t want that to happen,” Bundy said.

In the delta, the water flows are particularly critical for the Contra Costa Water District, the only district in California that gets all of its water from the delta.

“The main issue of water in this state has always revolved around the right to take water out of Northern California and send it to another area, and the prot
ections that are required for the areas of origin,” said Greg Gartrell, the district’s general manager.

“The best solution is going to be a negotiated one, not an imposed one, and a modest one adequate to what is needed to protect the species and people’s water supplies,” he added.

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