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The “Regulatory” Drought: It’s Easy to Feel on California Farms

Water set aside for environmental purposes has grown. So why haven’t the benefits grown, too?

Written by Cannon Michael Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Over the past four years, weather anomalies have played a large role in the reduction of water stored in California’s reservoirs and available for diversion in its streams. While hydrology is much to blame, regulatory impacts on water management are also taking a huge toll on water deliveries.

Currently, Lake Shasta has more than 1.6 million acre-feet in storage. In the last severe drought year of 1977, Shasta water storage had been reduced to 650,000 acre-feet through the summer months. In that year, the reservoir was used as it was designed to be used – and water flowed to farms, communities and wildlife refuges during peak demand. Now, in 2015, we will end up with more water in storage at the end of the year than we started the year with, and less water being delivered.

The reason for this is the regulatory emphasis on protecting winter-run Chinook salmon and the desire to provide this species with cold water. The State Water Resources Control Board’s focus has been to ensure that supplies of cold are available for the winter-run salmon’s migration. This has led to a large amount of water held in Lake Shasta for the cold-water purpose – even though a great deal of actual demand for that water exists in other sectors, such as agriculture.

Some activists disagree that this is a “regulatory drought,” but a review of Lake Shasta operations proves otherwise. We can debate the merits of trying to provide cold water for salmon, but we cannot deny that these protection measures are having a dramatic impact on surface water deliveries. And, we can clearly demonstrate the benefits these surface water deliveries would have provided for farms, communities and wildlife refuges. Every delivered acre-foot would have direct benefits, such as a reduction in fallowed acres, improvement in refuge habitat for migratory birds or a reduction in groundwater depletion.

In April 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown took the unprecedented action of implementing mandatory 25 percent water cutbacks on urban water users in California. The “voluntary” 20 percent conservation target he suggested the year before was largely ineffective and was not achieved, so a tougher approach made some sense in light of the fourth consecutive year of drought.

Mandatory cuts to agriculture were not mentioned at that April 2015 press conference. This caused some confusion in the media and public. Many thought Brown gave farmers a pass on mandatory rationing. Headlines like “Gov. Brown’s drought plan goes easy on agriculture” were common in the days following his announcement.

Gov. Brown did not specifically need to address agriculture, since the state and federal allocations to irrigation water suppliers had already been cut significantly.

The federal Central Valley Project was designed to provide irrigation water to more than 3 million acres of the 7.5 million acres of irrigated agriculture in California. Surface water is allocated to agricultural users on an annual basis by the state and federal operators. In times of drought, these allocations are reduced as much as 100 percent. Over the past 10 years, in fact, federal agricultural water contractors have received an averaged allocation of 35 percent.

The reality is that the majority of California agriculture has seen reductions of surface water supplies in every year of the drought – current and past. 2015 marked the second year in a row that more than 2 million acres of productive farmland received 0 percent of its surface water allocation.

Think back to the Governor’s April 2015 announcement and it is understandable why he did not make reference to California farmers; after all, it’s hard to be cut back more than 100 percent. While federal contractors received their second year of 0 percent allocations, farms served by state water contracts were “fortunate” to only be cut back 80 percent.

Current estimates of fallowed farmland in the Central Valley for this year, as a result of eliminated or severely reduced water supplies, range from 560,000 to more than 800,000 acres. This has led to a loss of approximately 21,000 jobs and a $2.23.3 billion economic loss for the state of California, according to researchers within the University of California and California State University systems.

Clearly, agriculture has not been exempted from the impact of the drought.

Water consumed by agriculture in California has declined overall as a share of total use, according to the California Water Plan Update for 2013, produced by the state Department of Water Resources. The “depleted” water attributed to agriculture (water consumed through evapotranspiration or otherwise lost to other uses) was 40.9 percent in 2010, down from 54.7 percent in 2001. Urban uses also dropped — to 8.9 percent. But environmental water climbed to 50.2 percent of the state’s total depleted water, up from 30.5 percent in 2001.

While declining allocations of surface water have led to fallowing of land and job losses, farms have been able to continue to produce crops. Investments in drip irrigation and access to groundwater have made it possible for farmers to continue to farm in spite of the ongoing drought. Farms that once had access to surface water have been forced to turn to groundwater – where available – to protect their crops. The issue of subsidence due to the overdrafting of some aquifers has been covered extensively in the news.

Relatively small amounts of once-reliable surface water deliveries — such as the water now stored in Lake Shasta for winter-run salmon — could have alleviated a great deal of the groundwater overdraft as well as many of the negative impacts.

During these challenging times, all water uses are open to scrutiny. Agricultural and urban uses have received a great deal of coverage in the press, but not much analysis has been done on the dedicated amounts of water that are going to the environment. Endangered species such as the Delta smelt and the winter-run salmon are declining, even though the system is being operated with preservation in mind.

Just as agricultural and urban users must look to improve their performance with water resources, we must also make sure that environmental uses are providing benefits. Collaborative, comprehensive solutions must be pursued in place of the singular focus of restricting water exports from the Delta. It is becoming increasingly clear that this focus is not providing the anticipated environmental benefits.

We must manage water to meet all needs, but in a manner that provides measurable benefits, including environmental uses. We cannot prioritize winners over losers, especially when the losers are the intended beneficiaries of the federal projects originally built to serve their needs. Federal management of water in the Bay-Delta now directs an additional 3.5 million acre-feet of water per year away from human uses and towards the perceived needs of the environment. Sadly, there has been no documented benefit to the fish intended for protection. That is the prime example of a “regulatory drought.”

Cannon Michael is a sixth-generation California farmer in the Los Banos, Calif., area, and president of his family’s farming company, Bowles Farming Company, Inc. They produce processing and fresh market tomatoes, melons, extra long staple cotton, corn and other annual crops. Cannon lives on the farm with his wife and three sons.

Top image: A Secret Service agent looks over a farm field near Los Banos, Calif., on February 14, 2014, during a visit by President Barack Obama. The region got even drier in 2015, partly because water allocations from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were again reduced to zero for many farmers. (Wally Skalij, Associated Press)

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