Experts warn California faces water catastrophe

Issue Date: July 23, 2008
Kate Campbell

Fallowed fields lead to lost jobs in the Central Valley, and officials warn that next year could be worse.

A congressional field hearing in Fresno this week was among a number of forums bringing attention to the worsening water disaster in California. Government officials are reviewing the scope of the crisis and looking for solutions to severe water shortages that threaten crops and jobs.

Mendota Mayor Robert Silva testified that his city—located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and heavily dependent on nearby farms for jobs and economic activity—already had unemployment levels reaching more than 30 percent, and that jobless rates will increase as the harvest season ends.

Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, testified that "2008 is a disaster, but 2009 could be the worst drought in California history."

He emphasized to congressional leaders, including subcommittee chair Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, and Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno; Devin Nunes, R-Visalia; and George Radanovich, R-Mariposa; that the state will end its water year Oct. 1 at 58 percent below normal precipitation, "but more disturbing is that we will end the year with the lowest water carryover in four decades."

"The drought and water supply problems in California are severe and stand to grow worse if the dry weather continues and if steps are not taken to turn the situation around," California Farm Bureau Federation warned the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power in a statement submitted before the subcommittee hearing.

"While the problems may be specific to California, the resulting impact will affect consumers across the country," Farm Bureau stressed. "Tight world food supplies are already leading to sharply higher food prices."

CFBF First Vice President Paul Wenger, who attended the hearing, said afterward, "We cannot conserve our way out of this drought. Not only is this a drought of historic proportions, it's also happening at a time of very different circumstances than in the past.

"Cropping patterns in the Central Valley have changed since the last severe drought," he said. "There are more permanent and value-added crops than ever before. These crops can't be fallowed. They require a stable water supply."

DWR Director Snow said problems created by the drought are symptoms of a lack of investment in water infrastructure and lack of a comprehensive water plan. He warned that failure to respond to this water crisis puts more than $400 billion in direct support for the state's economy in jeopardy.

Although panelists stopped short of recommending a comprehensive list of immediate and long-term actions, there was much criticism of the Endangered Species Act, with a number of panelists calling for reform. And, the state Legislature was strongly criticized for past inaction on water infrastructure improvements.

"This is a wake-up call for California," Farm Bureau's Wenger said. "Those who testified made it clear we need more water storage in California. We've already waited too long to act on storage.

"This isn't just about agriculture," he said. "This crisis affects everybody. It's a disgrace that we find ourselves in this situation today."

Read more:
California Farm Bureau statement
Witness testimony at Fresno congressional hearing

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