Monday, March 24, 2014

News articles and links from March 24, 2014


From: Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times

A shallow inland sea spreads across more than 160 square miles, speckled with egrets poking for crayfish among jewel-green rice shoots. The flooded fields could be mistaken for the rice paddies of Vietnam or southern China, but this is Northern California at the onset of severe drought. The scene is a testament to the inequities of California's system of water rights, a hierarchy of haves as old as the state.

Thanks to seniority, powerful Central Valley irrigation districts that most Californians have never heard of are at the head of the line for vast amounts of water, even at the expense of the environment and the rest of the state.

Coalition response... Water use and water rights have come a long way since the 19th century practice of nailing a post to a tree. The State Water Resources Control Board, charged with overseeing the proper allocation and efficient use of water alone is staffed by a bureaucracy of 1,500 regulators reporting to the Board. Permits are challenging to acquire and take years to navigate through review and challenges by environmental interest groups like NRDC.

It's no surprise that California values protecting the environment, including the endangered species in the Delta - it's such a high priority in fact, that we have proactively allocated 48% of our available water supply to environmental water uses without requiring that environmental water uses demonstrate or quantify benefits to the environment. We have, to date blindly hoped that increasing Delta flows would produce beneficial outcomes for those threatened and endangered species.

Water use in California agriculture has never been more efficient. California's farmers in the Central Valley have invested more than $3 billion dollars on 2.4 million acres to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems. These improvements would be the envy of many 20th century countries, to say nothing of 19th century Californians. Between 1967 and 2007 California farmers have almost doubled their productive yield, improving quality, while using 14% less water to do it.

Water Supply 

From: Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle

Even before the drought, the southern San Joaquin Valley was in big trouble.

Decades of irrigation have leached salts and toxic minerals from the soil that have nowhere to go, threatening crops and wildlife. Aquifers are being drained at an alarming pace. More than 95 percent of the area's native habitat has been destroyed by cultivation or urban expansion, leaving more endangered bird, mammal and other species in the southern San Joaquin than anywhere in the continental U.S.

Coalition response... This year's drought gives us a sample of what California can expect from a land fallowing program the scale of the one being proposed. Agricultural economists say this year's idling of 800,000 acres or more of farmland in California will cost 20,000 jobs and roughly a $7.5 billion hit to the economy. The environmental community never talks about the downside of wholesale land retirement but it's there - and it's not good. What are the costs of 20,000 more unemployed, underemployed, or on the welfare roll? How will we pay those costs when the tax base is eroded due to land that is no longer growing food? The jobs California farms generate don't stop at the farm gate. They include jobs in processing, trucking, wholesale and retail as well as high-paying jobs at ports in the Bay Area and Southern California.

Alternatively, we can use today's technology to resolve drainage issues and make the land better. Last week The Chronicle ran a story on the success underway of using solar energy to desalinate poor water and return it to irrigate productive cropland. This year Panoche Water District says the project will deliver 45,000 acre feet of reclaimed water to farmers in the area. In the long run it can produce much more, keep valuable farmland in production, solve drainage issues and add to the state's water supply. That sounds much better than unemployment and food lines.

Water Bond 

From: Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News

As California's drought drags on, more farmers are being forced to fallow fields and a growing number of small towns run out of water. So Republicans and Democrats here finally agree on something: They need to spend billions of dollars to fix California's broken water system.

But that doesn't mean getting a water bond on November's ballot that voters will approve is a sure thing.

Gov. Jerry Brown hasn't even decided whether he supports the idea, while the Legislature has come up with seven different schemes aimed at making the next drought a lot less painful.

Coalition response... Unlike NRDC and the Sierra Club, the California Farm Water Coalition does not engage in lobbying activity of any kind. The CFWC was formed to help inform the public on agricultural water issues and seeks to keep a growing urban population connected with California's farmers who grow the food and fiber we all rely on.  While we are not a lobbying group, we believe people should understand that the Wolk bill does not provide sufficient funding to meet the new demands for storage that provide water supply and in-Delta water quality benefits.

Water Rights

From: Matt Weiser, Sacramento Bee

It's amazingly easy to steal water from a California stream. Even in this epic drought, the state has no way of monitoring exactly who is tapping into its freshwater supplies and how much they take. And those who do get caught taking water they have no right to often are allowed to keep taking it for years just by promising to obtain a permit.

Nearly 30,000 entities in the state hold valid water diversion permits, including individual property owners, farmers and water utilities. Some have meters or gauges to measure their diversions, but the state has no ability of its own to monitor those gauges in real-time.


From: Steve Knell, Modesto Bee

Last Sunday's Modesto Bee focused attention on the relationship between groundwater pumping and out-of-area water transfers by some irrigation districts ("Continuing to pump districts sell surplus")

The tone of the article was less than positive and fully avoids the broader issues of resource management.

Water transfers and pumping groundwater are but two of a very complex set of resource activities available to irrigation districts. For Oakdale Irrigation District, how all these activities relate to our water business is fully covered in OID's Water Resources Plan, which was adopted in 2006 after a 21/2-year environmental review process. OID is on target with that document and our accomplishments speak for themselves in this drought.

From: Garth Stapley, Modesto Bee

A debate over farmers selling each other water will resurface at Tuesday's Modesto Irrigation District board meeting.

A month ago, the board took unprecedented action by embracing an open-market approach to water transfers, agreeing on a 3-2 vote to let growers negotiate transfers at any price. But both board members on the short end of that vote have said it's not a done deal.

"I will make an argument to rescind it on Tuesday," said board vice chairman Larry Byrd. Opponents of the open-market approach think the water rightfully belongs to everyone and don't like the idea of wealthy farmers outmuscling small growers with less to spend.

Water Storage 

From: Staff, Redding Record-Searchlight

If luck - and political will - holds, Sites Reservoir might just be the overnight success that was a lifetime in the making.

It's easy to grow discouraged at the slow machinations of government, and indeed the path to this point has been awfully circular for a project that makes sense on its merits, respects the environment and gains a fast-growing state about 1.9 million acre feet in new water storage capacity.

From: Mariana Jacob, KFSN 30

People all over the state headed outside to enjoy the warm weather on Sunday, but the dry conditions across California are also affecting water levels at local lakes and reservoirs.

At Millerton Lake, miles and miles of parched soil remain where there was once water. According to the State Department of Water Resources, the lake is currently at 32 percent of total capacity.

From: Kevin Freking, AP

California's drought has sparked a new push by federal lawmakers to create or expand a handful of reservoirs around the state, ramping up a political battle that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once referred to as a "holy war in some ways."

Government agencies have been studying five major water storage projects for nearly two decades, with nothing to show for the effort so far.


From: David Mas Masumoto, Sacramento Bee

In this drought year, it's my only hope. Yet I can't see it, hear it or feel it. It lies hidden deep beneath my farm. Without it, my farm and my neighbors go thirsty. All my senses focus on groundwater.

With a depleted snowpack in the Sierra and record low reservoirs, thousands of Central Valley farms will depend on water extracted from wells to keep their plants alive and to grow food. Hundreds of pumps in Valley cities and towns also supply water to tens of thousands of thirsty households. Farmers and city folks will pray our machines will continue to suck water from aquifers below our lands.

From: Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle

A huge shift away from annual crops to nut trees has transformed the California farm belt over the past two decades and left farmers perilously vulnerable to the severe drought that is currently gripping the state.

California farmers have spent past years busily ripping out lettuce, tomatoes and other annual crops in an attempt to sate the nation's growing appetite for almonds, pistachios and other nuts.

From: Dana Hull & Megan Hansen, Marin Independent Journal

With 2013 the driest year on record and 2014 possibly worse, the devastation of California's drought is trickling down to crops, fields, farmers markets, grocery stores - and Marin residents' kitchen tables.

While it's too early to tell precisely how much the drought will push up household grocery bills, economists say consumers can expect to pay more for food later this year because fewer acres of land are being planted and crop yields are shrinking.

From: Christien Kafton, KYVU 2

California farmers are saying the drought means they're paying more for water, and have no choice but to pass those costs on to consumers.

Miguel Cuevas works for Cipponeri Farms in Turlock. He says one of the major canals that brings water to Central Valley farms is bone dry, and that his farm and others will have to pay more for water in the months to come.


From: Amanda Carvajal, Merced Sun-Star

California is in the midst of the worst drought on record. Even when the region was blessed with a little precipitation, much of the water was forced out to the ocean instead of stored because of federal protections of the Delta smelt. Farmers who have been making every effort to conserve, while still managing to produce large quantities, are left scratching their heads in frustration. When the State Water Resources Control Board declared it would make one of the most significant water grabs in history, the contracted landowners' frustrations peaked.

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