Water briefing provides little encouragement

Issue Date: January 20, 2010
Kate Campbell

Hope was in shorter supply than water at a briefing on the state's water supply situation last week. More than 200 farmers and local leaders showed up at the Los Banos Fairgrounds to hear from state and federal officials about the impact of the continuing drought, low reservoir levels, regulatory inflexibility, crippling court decisions and dwindling options for those who grow irrigated crops—particularly on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Most of all, farmers wanted to know how much irrigation water will be available to support crops during this year's growing season.

Officials warned farmers that the first water allocation estimate from the federal Central Valley Project, due next month, could be as low as the initial 5 percent estimate made by the State Water Project. But they also pointed to the hope that storms generated by the El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean would bring rain and snow to California in coming weeks.

The current water situation includes reservoirs that are at less than half of average capacity for this time of year, a rate of pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for water storage that has been throttled back to about 40 percent of operating capacity, a current snowpack for spring runoff that stands at about 70 percent of average, and the state Department of Fish and Game count of protected delta smelt that stands at the lowest level since studies began in 1967.

"The people in this room are angry and frustrated because they're seeing their livelihoods from irrigated agriculture vanish," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Fresno-based Westlands Water District. "We're experiencing unbelievable levels of unemployment and there's a need for social services well beyond the need of any other communities in California."

Farmers urged officials to build more reservoirs to store water during wet years, but it's the current crop year that worries them. Farmers and valley lawmakers said the federal Endangered Species Act should be relaxed, so more water can be stored and available during the summer.

"More important is the short term now, because we have farmers on the brink of going out of business," said Earl Perez, who buys CVP water to grow several crops on the west side of Stanislaus County.

Other farmers are fallowing land, with as much as a half million acres in the San Joaquin Valley going idle last year.

Farmer Laurian Bettencourt of Gustine tells officials during a briefing on the state water crisis in Los Banos that farmers need flexibility to move excess water from their own operations to those who need it, especially during severe shortages.

Gustine farmer Laurian Bettencourt told officials that he has excess water on his farm, but regulations prevent transfers between farmers in different water districts.

"I want to help my neighbor," Bettencourt said. "He's had to fallow 400 acres, but I can't move my water to him. That just seems wrong."

Some farmers with limited water alternatives are simply selling out, including one Mendota-area farmer who told Ag Alert® that he just got tired of fighting

The Los Banos briefing included an update regarding a National Academy of Sciences review of the science behind the biological opinions on salmon and delta smelt, which restrict water movement through the delta.

At the request of the U.S. departments of Interior and Commerce, the National Academy of Sciences agreed to conduct the review and issue a report by March 15 that focuses on the assumptions used to operate the state and federal water projects. The academy will convene at the University of California, Davis, Jan. 24-28 to gather information.

"We're seeing some progress with the National Academy of Sciences review of the underlying science of the biological opinions that have resulted in reduced levels of water going into storage, because we believe there are other factors affecting the ecology of the delta besides the water transfer pumps," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, who hosted the briefing with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Among those attending were officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of Commerce, California Department of Water Resources and local water districts throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

Cardoza said the Bureau of Reclamation is being urged to improve the ability to transfer water by completing a long-term, multi-year water transfer program and an intertie canal project connecting the CVP and state water systems, while providing more federal dollars for water conservation, and improving and expanding a number of dams and reservoirs to increase efficiency and storage capacity.

"Our farmers can no longer shoulder the entire burden for the delta's problems. It's important that we find other solutions. Doing more of the same (curtailing the water transfer pumps) is not the answer," Cardoza said.

David Nawi, a senior advisor to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said he has opened an office in Sacramento and will be focusing his attention full-time on the state's water crisis, which he said is an indication of the Obama administration's commitment to helping address the state's water crisis.

But the Interior Department decided not to proceed with an experimental plan known as the Two Gates Fish Protection Demonstration Project, which would have tested the benefit of installing two moveable gates to keep fish away from the delta pumps.

In a December letter to the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which has been working to gain approval for the project, the Interior Department said it would not approve the Two Gates project. The department cited what it called major, unanswered questions and cost estimates that escalated from $29 million to $60 million to $80 million.

Farmers had hoped the project would be operational by this year.

California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said the Los Banos briefing reinforced the need to enhance the state's water system.

"We're not managing our system properly, including keeping it current with changing precipitation patterns, increasing urban and environmental demands, technology and infrastructure, so we can capture water and then efficiently move it when needed for the ecosystem, urban uses, and food and farm production," Merkley said. "The longer we wait, the longer it will take to resolve this crisis."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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