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Commentary: Improved data on protecting salmon can help farms

Issue Date: April 6, 2022
By Mike Wade
Mike Wade
Despite drought in 2021, salmon populations fared far better than feared. This suggests that balanced water management can help farms and fish.
Photo/California Farm Water Coalition

Farms require water to grow the healthy local food supply we depend on. But despite increasing water efficiency, farmers are always the first to have supplies cut. That trend continues this year, with increasing tensions, as California enters year three of a withering drought.

Yet amid our water challenges, farmers continue to recognize the importance of iconic California wildlife, such as winter- and fall-run Chinook salmon. Numerous farms and irrigation districts work with state agencies and multiple interest groups to help improve salmon habitat, reduce predators and ensure ample supplies of nutrients for juvenile salmon populations.

Those considerations for farms and fish were points of discussion recently when the State Water Resources Control Board held a workshop to discuss Sacramento River temperature management and its impact on salmon for 2022 and beyond. The workshop was planned when there was still hope for improved water conditions. After heavy early-season snowfall, the opportunity seemed ripe to explore water management options for water users and the environment.

Unfortunately, that wet October and December was followed by three exceptionally dry months, heightening drought conditions and diminishing prospects for innovative water management options in California's northern watershed. With little water left in Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville reservoirs, our water planning became an exercise in math to determine how long limited supplies will last.

Still, it is important to maintain balance between all water users and observe the California Water Code, which requires "reasonable" decisions among competing water uses. While some people may want to define reasonable solely based on an amount of water allocated to each user, it's clearly not that simple.

Many water—rights holders are receiving 30% or less of the normal allocation, with some getting no allocation at all. In the Sacramento Valley, Sacramento River Settlement Contractors are set to receive a 25% supply. That's a devastating outcome in an area that has generally been safe from significant cuts.

The result will be less rice and processing tomato production, threats to permanent crops, and dry pastures where cows normally graze during the spring and summer months.

A report on the economic impacts of the 2021 drought released by University of California, Merced in February showed that the drought caused over 395,000 acres to be fallowed and 14,364 job losses. This year is expected to be worse, potentially exceeding the 540,000 acres fallowed and 21,700 jobs lost that California agriculture experienced in 2015.

California farms employ more than 400,000 people each year, and many live in small, rural communities that are the first to feel the pain when farm jobs dry up. For many of these workers and their families, this has been their livelihood for decades.

Joe Del Bosque's Mexican-born parents were migrant farmworkers in the 1930s and 1940s, and he spent 10 years working for other farmers until he and his wife, Maria, were able to start their own farm. They are passionate about their workers. "The fact that many of our seasonal workers come back to our farm year after year shows their loyalty. Maria and I take pride in that," Del Bosque said.

Even though many associate California farming mostly with the Central Valley, there is agricultural production in all 58 California counties. Across the state, similar stories are shared on loyalty to farming, even as Del Bosque and many others now have to slash acreage and idle workers due to drought.

Yet efforts to support salmon are still yielding results. Far from predictions of a near-complete loss of young salmon in 2021, there was a large adult salmon run up the Sacramento River to spawn in early 2021 and, by October, more than 200,000 young salmon were migrating downstream. That tells us that helping salmon, which need cool water, is not solely based on abstract water level calculations.

Helping salmon and other important species requires a science-based approach and consideration of all water users.

While the California Natural Resources Agency announced a framework last week for "a transformational eight-year program that would provide new flows to the environment to help recover salmon and other native fish," research should be aimed at generating thorough data on life cycles of young salmon. More understanding of their needs and behaviors from birth to migration may provide critical information for protecting water supply reliability for farms.

Farmers, agricultural and urban water agencies, state and federal fishery agencies, and local volunteers can all play a positive role in delivering water for people, farms and the environment. We should never forget that California's food production is a vital part of that.

Today's world is full of uncertainties. Our food supply shouldn't be one of them.

(Mike Wade is the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. He may be contacted at

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

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