Interim response to water shortages gains support

Issue Date: February 24, 2010
Kate Campbell

Calling it a responsible short-term response to the state's water crisis, California farmers and ranchers urged support of a proposed amendment to federal legislation that could immediately increase water supplies for farms and cities during the next two years.

If adopted by Congress, supporters said the emergency, temporary measure would help the state gain needed time to hammer out more permanent solutions to the state's dire water supply problems.

In a letter to key members of Congress, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger called on senators to support the proposed Emergency Temporary Water Supply Amendment being developed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The amendment would be attached to the jobs bill currently under Senate consideration.

Although the actual language of the amendment was still being negotiated at Ag Alert® deadline, Wenger told senators, "We support the concept as presented."

In the letter to members of the Finance and the Environment and Public Works committees, he said the proposed temporary solution would increase the amount of water that can be transferred to storage during periods of high river flows, while also protecting delta smelt and migrating salmon.

"We must be able to effectively move water where it's needed, when it's needed," Wenger told the senators. "Right now, California is missing a vital opportunity to capture and store water that has been generated from rain and snow the past few months. Now is the time to move this available water into storage, for future use by our cities and farms."

Having more water available in surface reservoirs will also reduce the need for groundwater pumping, Wenger said.

"The surface water shortages in the Central Valley cause groundwater pumping to increase, which threatens the health of our underground aquifers and the environment," he said.

The California State Board of Food and Agriculture also publicly expressed its support for Feinstein's proposal.

Board President Al Montna said, "California farmers, ranchers and rural communities are facing significant challenges as a result of the ongoing drought—jobs are being impacted and communities are in need. Allowing drought-impacted farmers flexibility within the water system to hire, plant and harvest with 30 to 40 percent of water allocations is a positive step forward."

The State Water Project has issued its preliminary water contract allocation—a mere 5 percent—which is the lowest preliminary allocation in project history. Water contractors are awaiting the initial allocation announcement from the federal Central Valley Project.

In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP, Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, urged an allocation announcement sooner rather than later to help alleviate "extensive anxiety in our communities."

To illustrate the importance of timely water supply information, Nelson described the planning steps for processing tomatoes, explaining to the bureau that California is the world's fifth largest supplier of food and commodities and the world's largest producer of canning tomatoes.

The CVP is the largest single supplier of water to California farms and ranches. In years past, water allocations to CVP contractors have been announced about mid-February.

Planting must start immediately, Nelson said, so farmers can ultimately deliver the 11 million tons of tomatoes processors need. That means getting financing, putting 24 million plants in the ground during a two-month period and then having sufficient water to bring the crop to harvest in a highly orchestrated flow to canneries.

"Currently, there are millions of tomato seedlings waiting in greenhouses to go to the fields," Nelson explained. "But those fields need water. Further delays (in announcing a preliminary water allocation) don't just affect tomato production. The time lag . . . affects virtually every crop grown."

Contracts call for a CVP announcement by Feb. 22 of each year, but an announcement had not been made at Ag Alert deadline.

In urging support for the Feinstein amendment, Wenger pointed out that "right now is a critical time for many farmers to make planting decisions, and some face even tougher decisions about whether to stay in business. Any increase in water allocation will make a huge difference for maintaining California food production, revitalizing rural communities and restoring jobs."

Opposition to the Feinstein proposal from a dozen West Coast lawmakers, however, could threaten the amendment. In a show of support, farmers and farm employees gathered at the Fresno City Council chambers last week and pledged to help push for the emergency amendment through political action.

During the news conference organized by the Latino Water Coalition, Richard Valle, chairman of the Kings County Board of Supervisors, said the region's water shortages have caused high unemployment and poverty in many communities.

"We are here to push back until the need for food lines goes away and our people are able to go back to work," Valle said.

Also last week, the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, Kern County Water Agency, power plant operator Mirant Delta LLC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to settle a legal dispute surrounding operation of Mirant's Contra Costa and Pittsburg power plants.

The settlement provides for increased monitoring of power plant operations and sets a time frame to complete consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service regarding the impacts of power plant operations on endangered and threatened fish, including the delta smelt.

The power plants use delta water to create steam and drive turbines that generate electricity, but without species protections applied to the delta water transfer pumps.

"This settlement ensures that—through monitoring—impacts to at-risk, native fish such as the delta smelt can be fully understood and addressed," said Michael Boccadoro, spokesperson for the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.

The coalition said the actions related to the Mirant power plants are part of a broader effort to address key "stressors" in the delta, which it said include urban pesticide runoff, municipal stormwater and waste water discharges and predatory, non-native fish species such as striped bass and black (largemouth) bass.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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