Commentary: Farm Bureau is fighting for your water on every front


Issue Date: July 16, 2008
Chris Scheuring

This has been an extraordinarily rough year for California's water interests, whether agricultural, urban or environmental. A record dry spring and anemic snowpack has led to the official classification of 2008 as a "critically dry year;" beyond that difficult natural baseline, court-ordered restrictions on the state and federal governments' ability to deliver water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to points south—and restrictions designed to protect a small endangered fish called the delta smelt—have left a broad swath of Farm Bureau members reeling.

Reflecting the developing economic devastation, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought, as well as a state of emergency for nine counties in the San Joaquin Valley that are particularly hard hit by the reduction in water supply. As this unfolds, I want to update farmers and ranchers on our continued efforts to protect agricultural water supplies, to the maximum extent possible, in separate but related legal and policy processes:

Legal: The entire state's focus at this time is upon two cases in federal court, brought by environmental organizations to modify the operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project for the protection of threatened and endangered species. Judge Oliver Wanger of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California is presiding over these cases, which are defended by the federal and state governments as operators of those projects, as well as a large number of agricultural and urban water districts as the local retail contractors of the projects. The California Farm Bureau Federation is also a party to these cases, as the only agricultural organization to intervene on behalf of its membership, and has been vigorously litigating alongside the other defendants to minimize impacts to agricultural water supplies. In the face of declining fish populations in the delta and an uncompromising Endangered Species Act, the results thus far have been mixed: Judge Wanger ordered large cutbacks in delta pumping last summer for the protection of the delta smelt, but he appears less inclined to immediately modify project operations for the protection of salmon and steelhead.

Policy: CFBF continues to participate in two related policy processes, both forward-looking and designed to address competing interests in the delta, including the delta as a place and its ecosystem and water supply functions. The first is the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), a regulatory process by which water exporters from the delta will develop long-term permits for their operations by agreeing with federal and state resource agencies to certain conservation measures for the protection of threatened and endangered species. The second is Delta Vision, a broader process convened by Gov. Schwarzenegger, which is designed to produce a blueprint for the delta's long-term future. The plan will address not only ecosystem and water supply functions, but also agriculture, transportation, flood control, recreation and tourism. At this time, both of these processes are approaching critical questions about water conveyance as the broad template underlying their products, with a "dual conveyance" system—which moves some of the state's water around the delta in a new facility, but also continues to move some of the state's water through the delta—as the preferred direction.

If there is a silver lining to what has been a bad water year for California, my opinion is that the drought conditions, coupled with troubling court outcomes, has underscored the urgency of the forward-looking processes, like Delta Vision and BDCP. The state simply must find a long-term solution to its water management problems, which will probably require legislative action that brings additional surface storage to the table in addition to the debate over the future of the delta. I've been a water lawyer for long enough to know that water issues are never easy and often contentious in the American West, but Farm Bureau members should be assured that the CFBF team is working very hard to find the best possible outcomes for California's family farmers and ranchers.

(Chris Scheuring is managing counsel of the California Farm Bureau Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division. He may be contacted at cscheuring@cfbf.com.)

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