Commentary: Congress must act now to address state’s water crisis
By Rayne Pegg
Estimates indicate hundreds of thousands of acres of California farmland will be fallowed this year due to water shortages. Farm organizations want Congress to work on solutions that supply water in a balanced fashion to people, fish and agriculture.
Federal drought legislation is critical to the long-term viability of California agriculture and rural communities. Water is an essential input for California family farms and ranches, which produce a bounty of nutritious food for other regions of the United States that are unable to produce food year-round. Today's consumer expects to find citrus, leafy greens and strawberries in the same grocery store visit, regardless of season. The reality is that growing food requires water and Congress must take action to address California's perpetual water crisis. This is the message that Farm Bureau leaders will be taking back to our nation's capital this week on the annual California Farm Bureau Federal Policy trip.
In February, the House of Representatives passed legislation containing a long-term drought solution that opponents consider sweeping and controversial but that offers a balancing of agricultural and environmental water needs. The Senate has taken a different approach, focused on short-term solutions to ease the bureaucratic deadlock that stifles the ability of any agency to make decisions swiftly in a drought year. Neither legislative proposal is perfect but they set the stage for a long-overdue discussion on policies that affect how we store and allocate water.
Over the years, biological opinions involving fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act have immobilized agencies from storing water in preparation for dry months, in favor of releasing water for flood control or for fish. This year was the first time in history that both State Water Project and Central Valley Project water users were told they would get a zero water allocation from the two projects, although the state project later said it could deliver 5 percent to its customers. The cutbacks occurred despite more water being available this year than in 1977, which was one of California's driest years ever recorded but a year in which project customers still received partial supplies. The low allocations result from a significant volume of water being allocated to species, regardless of other circumstances.
It's troubling that our current system is unable to find a way to balance the needs of people and protected species. The House and Senate legislative proposals provide the framework for a conversation that must take place to modernize California's water system for the benefit of farmers and ranchers, rural communities, people throughout the state and its environment.
It's been suggested the Senate bill is intended to help the "super rich farmers" in the Central Valley. While California is home to many successful farming families who have built large-scale businesses from a single farmstand, there are far more small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers, as well as those who work in agriculture and our rural communities, who continue to be harmed by poor water policies. Farmers with larger economies of scale will have a greater ability to weather this drought and future droughts. However, small and mid-sized farmers who have invested hefty sums in their livestock herd or nursery stock do not have the capital to withstand ongoing drought and failed water policies that result in multiple years of lost acreage or animals.
With predictions of an El Niño year coming in 2015, our greatest fear is that policymakers will again kick the can down the road, leaving this topic, again, for another day. We may or may not experience more rain next year, but history shows us wet years come with dry years in between. Rain will not resolve the policies that still plague our system and don't allow for better planning and management of water. While Central Valley House members and Sen. Feinstein are attempting to resolve the problems in different ways, real progress between the two sides on addressing this issue has been made. Some House Democrats have advocated for the Senate not to pass a bill, because they are worried that negotiations in a conference committee would result in less water for the environment.
The reality is our water infrastructure is outdated, and so is the way we operate that infrastructure. We need to optimize the infrastructure we have and look forward toward a solution that supplies water in a balanced fashion to people, fish and agriculture.
We need all of our California representatives in Congress to understand that doing nothing would be extremely shortsighted and that our current water system does not well serve the environment, urban communities or farmers, now or for the future.
Without the House and Senate sitting down and hammering out a bipartisan solution, it is not the "super rich" family farmer who will suffer but rather the multi-generation family farmer who has every dollar in the ground and no water to grow a crop.
(Rayne Pegg is manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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