After all the crap, some real numbers
In a February letter to President Obama, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, claimed, as he did in many other venues: "A simple measure that would save up to 80,000 jobs (in the lower San Joaquin Valley) would be to relax restrictions on pumping facilities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers Delta that have caused the regulatory drought that my constituents are experiencing."
In January, the state Farm Bureau reported that, "UC Davis agricultural economist Richard Howitt that the drought would cause a lost of "40,000 jobs, and these are job losses for those who can least afford them in the valley's small, rural towns."
Water officials: Pumping restrictions cost Westside agriculture 2,000 jobs...Seth Nidever...9-19-09
Officials at the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority issued a statement Friday claiming100,000 acres went unplanted and 2,000 jobs have been lost on the Westside because of federal pumping cutbacks to protect the endangered Delta smelt fish.
The statement refutes a document released Thursday by the U.S. Department of the Interior that claims it’s “not true” that “water shortages and high unemployment rates in California’s Central Valley are the result of a man-made, ‘regulatory’ drought, as opposed to natural conditions.”
“Interior is lacking candor in explaining and accepting the human impacts of the Endangered Species Act restrictions,” said Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of Westlands Water District.
Westlands, a member of the authority, has about 80,000 acres in Kings County that rely on federal Central Valley Project water from the delta.
“I would just say in general we look forward to ... working with the local and state government, as well as the water authorities and our other partners, to solve this problem,” said Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff.
Barkoff declined to get into specifics about how much of a role environmental regulations play in the current situation.
Current laws call for a certain percentage of the Central Valley Project water to go to environmental protection and ecosystem preservation in the delta and other areas. These rules are not suspended in drought situations like the current one — California is in its third consecutive dry year.
Many of the regulations were included in the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, passed in 1992, which reserves some water for fish and wildlife protection and ecosystem preservation.
But this year Westside farmers are facing additional regulations stemming from a 2007 federal court order to protect the delta smelt fish and a 2009 federal biological opinion mandating additional cutbacks to protect other fish species including salmon and steelhead.
The cumulative impacts have left giant bare patches of earth on the Westside and created high farmworker unemployment in small towns like Avenal, Huron and Mendota.
Westlands officials predict district farmers will lose 1 million acre-feet of water as a result of both the court order and the biological opinion.
The Interior Department is right about the fact that there is a natural drought, but has tried to “minimize the role that regulatory decisions play,” said Dan Nelson, executive director of the authority.
Valley jobless figures improve
Fresno County rate falls while statewide number increases...Tim Sheehan
California's unemployment rate has risen above 12%, setting a record for modern times, officials said Friday. But across the central San Joaquin Valley, unemployment rates headed in the opposite direction.
An estimated 2.2 million Californians were out of work in August, the state Employment Development Department reported. That represents 12.2% of the state's work force, excluding discouraged workers who have given up looking for jobs. That's the highest since 1976, when current tracking methods began.
Joblessness in Fresno County remains well above the statewide figure, but gains in agriculture and manufacturing helped drive the county's unemployment rate from 15% in July to 14.6% in August -- the lowest it's been all year.
Similar improvements were reported in neighboring Valley counties. Across Fresno, Madera, Merced, Kings and Tulare counties, the number of people out of work fell from 136,200 in July to 133,200 in August.
Despite the statewide record, there were signs California may be emerging from recession as the rate of job losses slowed. The number of jobs lost from July to August was just 12,000, down from about 35,000 in the previous month. From November 2008 until last June, the state lost 65,000 or more jobs each month, said Jerry Nickelsburg, a senior economist with the Anderson Forecast at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In February alone, the state lost more than 110,000 jobs.
"The big story is the continued decline in the rate of job loss in payroll employment," Nickelsburg said. "That's much more significant than the slight uptick in the unemployment rate."
Among Valley counties, Merced County saw the greatest drop in the jobless rate -- almost a full percentage point, from 17.6% in July to 16.7% in August.
In Kings County, the rate fell to 14.2% from 14.4%. In Madera County, it fell to 13.3% from 13.8%, and in Tulare, to 15.2% from 15.3%.
The seasonal nature of agricultural employment is one factor nudging Valley unemployment rates down while California's rate rose.
But Alexander Whalley, a professor of economics at University of California, Merced, said he believes it also has to do with the Valley getting hit harder and earlier than other parts of the state when the recession began.
"I think the Valley has had more time to make that adjustment," Whalley said. Some people out of work for months have likely uprooted and moved to other parts of the country to find work, Whalley said, perhaps thinning the ranks of the unemployed here. "We don't have a good measure of that, but I do get a sense that in the Central Valley, things are going to start getting better."
Whalley added that he doesn't expect to see unemployment rates in the coming winter -- when farm jobs seasonally dip -- climb as high as last March, when it reached 17% in Fresno County.
California was one of 42 states to lose jobs last month, when the national jobless rate hit 9.7%, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. The state is tied with Oregon for the fourth-highest unemployment rate nationally, behind Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said earlier this week that the recession is likely over but warned that the economy will not grow quickly enough to lower the nation's unemployment rate in the short term. Economists expect the national jobless rate is expected to peak above 10% next year.
The U.S. lost 216,000 jobs in August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said earlier this month, down from 276,000 in July. Employers have eliminated 6.9 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007.
"You are seeing the pace of job losses slow a little bit," said Mike Lynch, a regional economist at IHS Global Insight. But states "are not out of the woods yet."
Some Valley farmers are selling water to buyers outside region
But local experts say deal like one in Kings County unlikely to occur here...DAVID CASTELLON
While area farmers are struggling through a third year of drought, letting land lie fallow because they can't afford to irrigate it, a large Kings County farm operator is a step away from a $73 million deal that would send 14,000 acre-feet of water to the Mojave Desert over 10 years.
The price, more than $5,200 an acre-foot, could be a record. Robert Cooke, chief of the State Water Project Analysis Office, said the most he's ever heard paid for water was about $3,000 an acre-foot.
An acre-foot is the amount of water that would fill an acre 1 foot deep, or 325,851 gallons. The average household in the Visalia area uses about 290,000 gallons of water annually, according to the California Water Services Co.
The deal for the Kings County water, awaiting final approval by the California Department of Water Resources, is between Sandridge Partners, owned by the family of the late Silicon Valley real estate developer Stephen Vidovich, and the Mojave Water Agency, which represents water districts in more than 4,900 square miles of high desert along Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, roughly between Victorville and Barstow.
Sandridge farms in southwestern Kings County, near Kettleman City, use water from the nearby California Aqueduct to farm 2,500 acres of almonds. Sandridge spokesmen were not available to say what would happen to the almonds.
Some reports say Sandridge intends to use some of its $73 million windfall to buy groundwater rights in Kings and Tulare counties.
That's what worries John Roeloffs, a Tipton-area farmer and dairyman.
"Heck no. I don't like it. I think it's a bad deal," Roeloffs said. He pays about $100 an acre-foot for water. "Everybody who sells water thinks there's water coming behind it, but that's not true."
Drought affects all water sources
Water in the southern San Joaquin Valley can be drawn from all or some of four places: groundwater; surface water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs; the California Aqueduct; and the Friant-Kern Canal.
All these sources have been affected by three years of drought.
In addition, the amount of water delivered by the California Aqueduct has been reduced through an agreement to divert some ag water for environmental reasons in Northern California.
And, the federally controlled Friant-Kern Canal, from which Roeloffs draws most of his agricultural water — along with many other Tulare County farmers, as well as the city of Lindsay and the town of Strathmore — is distributing, on average, about 20 percent less water because of low runoff from the Sierra.
The result is more demand on groundwater, drawn from wells that are themselves victims of falling water tables.
A valuable commodity
With things this bad, it's not surprising that water has become such a valuable commodity that a farm operator like Sandridge could sell it for many times the going rate.
Under the proposed contract, Sandridge would allow the Mojave Water Agency to request additional water from the California Aqueduct in three separate years. In 2010, it would get 7,000 acre-feet; in 2015, it would get 3,000; and in 2020, 4,000. In those years, Sandridge would reduce its own draw on Aqueduct water by the same amounts, said Craig Trombly, chief of the water contract branch for the State Water Project Analysis Office.
As for the dollars paid for that water, the state agreement is filled with various fees and charges for the parties involved, but Sandridge and Mojave have signed their own side agreement for a one-time, $73 million payment for the water, Trombly said.
The Mojave Water Agency already is a big user of California Aqueduct water. More than a decade ago, it bought water from Kern County, and currently it has contracted to draw a maximum 75,800 acre-feet a year from the California Aqueduct.
This year, because of delivery reductions, it's getting only 80 percent of that, said Kirby Brill, general manager of Mojave Water.
The water the Mojave Water plans to get through the Sandridge deal would be used to help replenish its underground water, Brill said.
At more than $5,200 per acre-foot, Mojave clearly is willing to pay heavily for it, as water from the Aqueduct normally costs — according to Cooke — $100 to $500 per acre-foot, depending on how hot and dry a year is, as well as the distance it travels.
"It's an aggressive policy by our board [of directors] to make sure this area has the water it needs for the future," Brill said of the deal.
That "aggressive" price has raised concerns that other farming operations in the Valley will look at all those zeros and try to strike more deals to send water outside the area.
"I think it's a bad deal that farmers sell their water for money," Roeloffs said.
"The people always win," he added, referring to water districts that supply homes and businesses — Mojave Water among them — and can pay a lot more for water than farmers and ranchers.
"When they sell the surface water to an urban use, that water's gone forever," said Charlie Pitigliano, owner of Pitigliano Farms in Tipton and Pixley.
In addition, he said, if landowners sell off their surface water rights, they may end up pumping more groundwater to keep their farms going.
Can it happen in Tulare County?
That affects all farmers in the region, because aquifers beneath the Valley are largely connected, like cups connected by straws, Pitigliano explained. "If they put more straws in the glass, they're going to pump everybody dry."
But water experts in Tulare County say deals similar to the one Sandridge struck are highly unlikely to occur here.
A big part of the reason is that farms drawing water from the California Aqueduct actually own their water rights — through their respective water districts —and can sell them.
The 14 water districts in Tulare County — the city of Lindsay among them — don't draw water from the Aqueduct. Surface water here comes from the Friant-Kern Canal as well as the Kaweah and Tule rivers. Different rules apply.
"Most irrigation districts own the surface contracts to the water and distribute it to the landowners," said Tom Barcellos, who operates a dairy and farms in the Porterville and Tipton areas.
"In the district where I'm in, I can't control that water. I can't sell the surface water rights.
"If I choose not to use it, it's spread among the remaining farmers in the district."
In the case of water from the Friant-Kern Canal, which is used to irrigate land or supply water for communities along 1 million acres in the San Joaquin Valley, the water districts own the water, not individual farmers or communities that ultimately use it. The districts can sell off some of their water, but with restrictions, said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority.
"Water rights on Friant are limited to place of use," an area covering 4.5 million acres of the Valley, he explained. "You can't sell water outside of that boundary. So our guys couldn't sell water to Los Angeles, even if they wanted to."
Similar rules apply to river water here.
"By statute, you do not own the water, but you acquire the right to it," said Bruce George, water master for the Kaweah and St. Johns Rivers Association.
"The association has a policy of no net loss to our basin" unless an equal amount or more is returned later, he said.
If anyone tried to transfer water out of the area for money or trade, "it would violate the [association's] policy and possibly have environmental impacts" and likely would be challenged in court, George said.