California’s Absurd Water Policy Must Change

sf chronicle article 3 31 2016

Skyrocketing Costs From $19 an Acre Foot to $250

Alberto Flores, 29, harvests melons on Flores’ leased farmland July 21, 2015 in Tracy, Calif. Flores started his farming business Arya Farm Produce with Sam Aziz five years ago. He leases 40 acres of land and is only farming 20 acres of it because of the drought. Flores sells his produce along with other produce he purchases locally in a small store on the edge of his land. He says water prices have made things difficult for his small, organic operation this year. When he started five years ago he recalls the price for an acre foot of water was 19 dollars as compared with about 250 dollars today.

Photo by: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

The Harsh Reality of California’s Water Policy

Imagine a state water policy that mandates all residents of Los Angeles must turn on their taps and let water run for three straight months but denies water to every San Franciscan during the same period.

Crazy, right? Yet this is remarkably similar to California’s water supply policy, a hodgepodge of discordant federal and state programs.

Case in point: After five long years of drought, we finally have some relief. In response, the state Department of Water Resources increased its water delivery estimate to a 45 percent allocation for State Water Contractors, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced an initial 30 percent allocation for farmers on the east side of the southern San Joaquin Valley.

But on the west side of the valley, water contractors are being warned to expect a zero allocation.

Our unbalanced and uncoordinated water policy creates some winners and multiple losers. The California congressional delegation and our Legislature — indeed, every Californian — should demand to know why, now that we have water, it is not being pumped where it’s needed.

More Than 200 Billion Gallons of Water Has Been Flushed Into The Ocean

Here’s the nonsensical answer. Since Dec. 1, 2015, more than 779,000 acre feet, or more than 200 billion gallons, of water has been flushed into the ocean. That’s enough water for almost 1.5 million families for an entire year — and this is only water we could have pumped, not all the water flowing to the ocean.

Letting water flow to sea is required under federal biological opinions designed to protect native fish species such as the endangered delta smelt; water pumping to the San Joaquin Valley is restricted to support the smelt, the legal indicator of the delta’s environmental health. But even these efforts have failed. Since 2008, government regulators have flushed almost 2 trillion gallons of water into the San Francisco Bay, yet biological sampling in the delta consistently yields fewer than a dozen smelt, with virtually none found sucked into the pipes that pump water to the San Joaquin Valley.

Theories abound for their continued decline — inadequate rainfall, warmer water, predation — but no new policies are being advanced to revisit the pumping restrictions. In the meantime, our water policy demands that we continue to carelessly direct water out to sea.

Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a letter requesting that President Obama order federal agencies to “maximize pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the maximum level allowed under the Endangered Species Act and the biological opinions.”

Feinstein observed that the agencies “operate the system in a manner that may be contrary to the available data,” and to the detriment of the 69 communities in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Like all farmers, I’m aware that the long-term survival of food production capability depends on the effective management of California’s water resources, so we prioritize good water stewardship and management; irrigation efficiencies; a proactive approach to groundwater management; and environmental stewardship. But we are stymied by the dysfunctional federal Central Valley Project. California’s overall approach to water management must contain enough flexibility so that in times of “water wealth,” we receive an allocation that considers our important role in food production.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, our state came together under extraordinary measures to address the emergency. Similarly, in these years of drought, we all worked to preserve precious water. Now, it’s a wet year, and the reality for many Californians remains dire. Do we have the same determination — the same political grit — to fix to our broken water delivery system?

This article was written by William Bourdeau and originally published on March 31, 2016 at the San Francisco Chronicle.

William Bourdeau is the executive vice president of Harris Farms in Coalinga (Fresno County), which grows lettuce, tomatoes, onions, melons, almonds, pistachios and grapes.


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