Speakers seek common ground on water issues

Issue Date: February 11, 2009
Dave Kranz

The potential for unprecedented water shortages this year may spur farmers, environmentalists and urban water planners, to find common ground that has so far eluded them, according to speakers at an irrigation conference in Sacramento.

During panel discussions at the 47th annual California Irrigation Institute conference last week, several speakers stressed the urgent need to resolve the state's pressing water problems.

"Too often, we talk at one another instead of with one another, and that is not conducive to arriving at what can be some longer-term progress and solutions," farmer Mark Borba of Riverdale told the conference. "People are tired of fighting."

"I think there's a lot of common ground," said Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District.

Representatives of GCID and other Sacramento Valley water districts met earlier in the week with representatives of environmental organizations, according to one of the meeting's environmental participants, Jonas Minton of the Planning and Conservation League.

"There was a shared realization that the old way of butting heads isn't working," Minton said. "The water managers aren't getting the water reliability they need and the environment is going to hell. It's important to talk and we found a lot of agreement."

The tone of the Sacramento conference was more measured than that of a debate between farm water representatives and environmentalists, held in Fresno a few hours after the irrigation institute meeting ended.

But farmers at the irrigation meeting made it clear that they face dire circumstances this year and beyond, in the face of continued drought and court rulings that restrict water supplies further.

"I'm looking at the long term and frankly I don't see anything good out there," farmer Ted Sheely of Lemoore told the conference. "I'm usually a pretty optimistic kind of guy but I don't see a lot of good things happening."

Sheely has been a leader in adoption of precision-agriculture techniques and water-saving technology on his farm. He has developed groundwater on his land and said he's currently drilling a 2,000-foot-deep well. But even so, the threat of a zero-percent water allocation from the federal Central Valley Project will force him to leave more than one-third of his land fallow this year.

During water shortages last year, Sheely said he converted 640 acres of ground from garlic production into safflower, as a water-saving strategy.

"The problem is looking at what impact that has on my local, county and state governments," he said.

Sheely estimated the garlic would have brought in 10 times the gross revenue that the safflower did, meaning that much less money circulated through the local economy.

As Congress works on economic stimulus legislation, farmer Borba said that California agriculture should be considered the true "stimulus package."

"Every dollar that I take in goes to wages or supplies or equipment or consulting or technology upgrades or services like lawyers or doctors, accountants, bankers," he said, adding that all of that activity adds tax revenue to government services.

"We need to get people to understand that California agriculture is essential," Borba said.

With little or no CVP water likely to be available this year, Borba said he and other farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley are "trying to keep our permanent crops alive. We're trying to convince our bankers to hang with us for another year."

The state Department of Water Resources will operate a Drought Water Bank, to facilitate water transfers that might ease shortages to some degree. But both buyers and sellers told the irrigation conference that they expect the bank to exchange relatively little water this year, principally because of court decisions that restrict water movement through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The manager of transfer and exchange programs for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Steve Hirsch, said participants in the water bank "are trying to make this work. But court decisions make it very hard."

General Manager Ted Trimble of the Western Canal Water District, a Sacramento Valley district that has participated in past water transfers, said environmental documents for the Drought Water Bank discuss maximum transfers totaling 600,000 acre-feet.

"But with all the environmental restrictions, the bank will be lucky to move 100,000 acre-feet," he said. "Water transfers are just an interim solution. We need more places to put winter runoff, to get us through these dry times."

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.