Drought a Regulation Issue

While California farmers and growers are facing difficult choices with their crops due to the lack of rain and lack of irrigation water this year, Congress is having its own battles over federal court decisions related to the Endangered Species Act, which requires limiting water transfers to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project in order to protect the delta

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — While California farmers and growers are facing difficult choices with their crops due to the lack of rain and lack of irrigation water this year, Congress is having its own battles over federal court decisions related to the Endangered Species Act, which requires limiting water transfers to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project in order to protect the delta smelt, an endangered fish species native to the Sacramento Delta.

“[The growers] are extremely upset,” said Wendy Fink-Weber, spokeswoman for Western Growers Association.

“This is the worst it's ever been and they're really calling it a regulatory drought and not just an act of nature. It's the water — yes, there's been drought, they've lived like this two times before, but never had they had zero allocation from the Central Valley Project and that's all due to the pumping restrictions to save the delta smelt. The hearings — all of those congressmen come from those areas and they're pretty much reflecting the needs of the citizens there.”

Rosanna Westmoreland, spokeswoman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, agreed that much of the current water problem has to do with current regulations, combined with an inadequate water infrastructure.

“The ability to grow food on America's soils, to feed our nation and assist in hunger relief efforts around the world is a national security issue,” said Westmoreland.

“California has not developed enough water to meet the needs of its growing population, and the current system is hamstrung by environmental regulations and an aging water infrastructure.”

The state has said it will deliver only 20% of the water typically allocated for cities and farms this year. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates a separate irrigation system to deliver water to the region's farmers, has said it will not deliver any water this spring to farms south of the Sacramento Delta — which would include most farms south of San Francisco and Stockton. Farmers north of the delta will only get 5% of their contracted amount.

“Family farmers have had to make tough decisions regarding continuing with crops already in the ground, fallowing fields and stumping trees due to the extreme uncertainty of immediate and future water supplies,” said Westmoreland.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack is about 81% of normal for this time of year, far from enough to replenish the state's reservoirs, according to the fourth Sierra snow survey conducted by the California Department of Water Resources. Snow water content helps determine the coming year's water supply.

“A below-average snowpack at this time of year, especially following two consecutive dry years, is a cause for concern,” said Lester Snow, director of the California DWR, in a release.

“Our most critical storage reservoirs remain low, and we face severe water supply problems in many parts of our state. Californians must continue to save water at home and in their businesses.”

Richard Howitt, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis, said that current estimates regarding the impact the drought and these related restrictions will have on the state economy have declined from initial estimates of over $1 billion. But the impact will still be severe.

“The new estimates are income losses, $992 million; revenue losses about $735 million; and employment loss about 36,000,” Harris said, adding that the hardest hit areas are still going to be on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and southern Kern County. Cities in the San Joaquin Valley are facing 15%-17% unemployment. In rural farm communities, that number goes to 40%.

“Some farmers are still in bad shape because they're still reliant on very small water supplies from the big contracting agencies,” said Howitt. “It's very hard to tell how long this will last because we got a double hit this year with the drought and the biological opinions, and so things will still continue to be tight even when it starts raining.”

Howitt also said that he believes there will be a movement of crops toward water in addition to water trade.

Fink-Weber said that while there is trading of water, the ultimate problem — besides the pumping restrictions in the delta, several years of below-average precipitation, and California's inability to upgrade its water system to adequately supply a growing population — is the transportation of the water.

“There is trading of water and there is something that the governor put together called the Drought Water Bank. And they're trying to lift some restrictions in the transfer of that water between willing seller and willing buyer,” she said.

“The issue, period, is getting the water where it needs to be. Many people will say there is enough water, but right now, getting it transferred to where it needs to be is the challenge, both in terms of infrastructure and the bureaucratic process that you have to go though.”

Earlier this month, Congress held a hearing to assess actions by federal and state agencies responding to the water emergency that is threatening the state's enormous agricultural industry, in addition to its citizens. The House Natural Resources Committee heard from a panel of government officials, and took testimony from a group of California congressmen.

Many congressmen discounted the drought as the reason for the San Joaquin Valley's lack of water and are pushing to lift the restrictions or make exceptions to the Endangered Species Act.

Republican Rep. George Radanovich introduced H.R. 856, which would temporarily remove the restrictions on the delta pumps during times of drought emergency.

“The federal government must stop passing laws and developing regulations that place the value of species above the value of people,” Radanovich said on his website.

Radanovich and other lawmakers are pushing for the Two Gates Project, a $26.5 million plan to install two temporary gates in the central delta that would reduce the loss of fish and thereby minimize water export restrictions.

Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in California is offering limited-time special assistance program for farmers and ranchers in designated counties with extreme or severe drought conditions. Applications will be taken for $2 million in available funds for farmers who are working on practices designed to protect soil and air quality in fallowed fields, keep orchard trees alive and protect natural resources on ranch and pasture lands. The 30-day sign-up period ends May 8.

“Any help is good help,” Fink-Weber said. “Agriculture has generally used the same amount of water for, say, the past few decades — about 34 million acre feet a year, but the yields have increased by 89%; it's incredible. Farmers are resilient and they've dealt with doubt before. Their mantra is, ‘Make it through 2009.’ It still remains to be seen. Last year, they had a problem that [the snowpack] melted so quickly, that most of it ran off into the ocean because of storage issues. We need better storage. It's ongoing and time will tell, and it can be different next week. Everybody is hoping for the best and doing what they can.”