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Commentary: Balanced approach to water needed for farms, fish

Issue Date: May 4, 2022
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
Farms and fish alike depend on water from the Sacramento River in Northern California.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources

Project operators recently explained unprecedented emergency plans for cold-water temperature management to support endangered salmon below Shasta Dam, the federal Central Valley Project's largest reservoir. Based on what they told the California State Water Resources Control Board, the effort is pulling out all stops imaginable.

The goal is to get at least a few nests of Central Valley winter-run chinook salmon eggs to hatch, while still leaving something in the reservoir at the end of this summer, should dry conditions continue next year. But conditions this year are so abnormally dry, and feasible flows below the dam will be so low, it's not clear what will happen.

Amid blast-furnace temperatures during the peak of summer, this process seeks to maintain water temperatures as cold as a beer in the ice chest of an angler casting his lure from the shore.

Such cooling is possible in most years, thanks to the elaborate machinations of armies of planners, project operators and biologists. Carefully managed releases of very cold water from rain and melting snow, generally provided courtesy of Mother Nature, are critical drivers. But in bone-dry droughts, such as the historic one we are now experiencing, this whole enterprise becomes much more difficult.

To date, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has zeroed out all deliveries to agricultural water service contractors on the west sides of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. For the second year in a row, farmers have only groundwater, scarce and ultra-expensive transfer water or the option of fallowing annual crops to get their nut and fruit trees through the season.

Sacramento River Settlement Contractors water-rights holders face an 18% water allocation, a direct consequence of this year's anticipated temperature management operations out of Shasta Dam. As a result, 375,000 acres out of 450,000 acres in the Settlement Contractors' service area are expected to go unplanted. Zero water will be left for normal transfers out of the region to help other users in the state.

State Water Project contractors will get just 5% of water deliveries. Senior San Joaquin River Exchange contractors may get 75% of their historic water rights on the San Joaquin River. This will leave those relying on water allocations from the Friant-Kern Canal—which supplies farming counties of Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Kern—with an allocation of less than 15%.

The state water board is again readying summer water-rights curtailments for even some of the most senior users throughout the extended Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed. That's happening as emergency barriers are back in place to keep saltwater from the San Francisco Bay from pushing upstream and threatening the health of the delta.

There are potentially promising things we can do for the salmon to make things better, including steps that are included in an announced set of proposed voluntary water agreements. Under the Newsom administration's $2.6 billion plan to improve water quality for salmon and native fish, this involves dedicating additional water for rivers, improving habitat and nutrients instream, investing in scientific studies and improving collaboration.

Rivers are to be reconnected to areas of managed seasonal floodplains and, eventually, some of these fish populations may regain access to mountain stream habitats they once used. But with droughts in California intensifying, it leaves one to wonder.

The commercial fishing industry in California is a shadow of what it once was, and it appears some would like to see California agriculture similarly impacted. Even if every farm in California dried up, we could still see our very best management efforts frustrated as salmon remain vulnerable to extreme weather patterns, voracious non-native predators in rivers and changes in marine ecosystems off the California coast.

Growing food to feed people takes water—lots of it. That is a fact anywhere in the world. And, undeniably, fish and rivers need water too.

We must steward the resources that we have, and do so in a way that is judicious, realistic, effective and smart. But still the questions come: What can we do differently or better? Can it work? And at what cost?

As California farmers see their livelihoods—and our food supply—hit incredibly hard this summer, many are no doubt asking these questions.

With another season of hotter, drier, more extreme conditions poised to squeeze our economy and state, there's a lot for all Californians—and consumers of California agricultural products nationwide to ponder.

(Justin Fredrickson is a water and environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau. He may be contacted at jef@cfbf.com.)

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




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