Drought update: September 2014
We haven't found much in the press that mirrors our own view of the drought. We see that it is the third or the second or the whatever-worst drought in a long time. We see the drought is inflicting economic pain. We see the political games being played to extract more water from the Delta for farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley -- whose farms are rapidly salting up with heavy metals. We are wondering if the new Farm Bill will deliver more or less funds to impacted farmers and agribusinesses. We hope this additional stress will not inflict too much more pain on the Honey bee population. We see wells being drilled deeper and deeper everywhere in the Valley and foothills.
And we think the long-term political policy of Westlands Water District, with the most junior water rights to Delta water to be used to supplement groundwater rather than to replace it, of encouraging its farmers to plant permanent crops so that they can whine piteously during droughts "you can fallow a tomato field but you can't fallow an orchard"-- something even a soccer mom could understand.
Could she also understand that a risk is something that does not always turn out well? Could she understand that just because a risky venture hasn't turned out well, that is no excuse for plundering one's neighbors' groundwater supply? Perhaps it would be easier for the mom to understand it if she were living in a labor camp in one of the towns whose wells are running dry because the orchards around them rely on groundwater alone during droughts.
But try as hard as we can to reduce this drought to money lost -- and almost everything that has been written about it boils down to money lost to relatively few people in farm commodities so mechanized that there is relatively little labor in them, even compared with the drought of 1976-77 -- the drought is more than money lost. In fact for some it may be money gained. We shall see.
Overdrafting groundwater has become so large a problem that the state Legislature has passed a package of bills to regulate groundwater pumping. Apparently, there is not enough neighborliness left in the Valley to do it ourselves, what with new corporations buying land every week; and although county supervisors flap their lips, they can't do much either. Witness the now infamous "Sloan sale" in Merced County, the huge plantations of almonds springing up in eastern Stanislaus County irrigated with well water, and the ongoing orchard incursion into the east side of Merced County. These companies are about as neighborly as the hydraulic fracking outfits in the East. -- blj
Five myths about California’s drought
By Richard Howitt and Jay Lund
Richard Howitt is a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis. Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis.
California is experiencing its third-worst drought in 106 years, resulting in idled croplandand soaring water prices. Since the state produces almost 70 percent of the nation’s top 25 fruit, nut and vegetable crops, California’s pain could soon hit the rest of the country through higher food prices. Will conservation and new water-saving technologies be enough to weather this dry period? Let’s consider five myths about the California drought.
1. California knows how to manage droughts.
California is lurching through this drought like a man who thinks he is so rich he doesn’t have to balance his checkbook. Much of the state’s agriculture is relying on unmonitored pumping of more groundwater from aquifers, a backup source of water during droughts. This could hurt the sustainability of crops in future droughts, since the aquifers will be threatened if there is not enough replenishment in wetter years. No one in California knows exactly how much water is being drawn from the state’s aquifers, because the pumping of underground water is not measured or recorded by state or federal agencies, or by any private party. However, two bills are pending in the state legislature that could bring some transparency and logic to the use of underground water.
The other way California adjusts to drought is by buying and selling water on an informal market. This year, some farmers who grow lower-valued crops are fallowing them and selling their water to keep orchards alive. But there is no central source of information on the prices and quantities of water that is for sale, so farmers with urgent needs to water trees and vines must seek out farmers with water available who might be willing to fallow their crops. This lack of transparency leads to high prices and farmers missing out on water because they’re unaware of the current price and where water might be available.
Fact or fiction? A collection from Outlook’s popular Five Myths series.
MYTH: Sanctions never work. “The most complete academic studies on the matter show that sanctions lead to concessions from the targeted government in one out of every three or four cases,” writes Daniel W. Drezner in “Five myths about sanctions. “That is a far cry from never working.” Here, President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel leave a joint news conference at the White House in May. The leaders discussed additional sanctions to punish Russia for its incursion into Ukraine. Charles Dharapak/AP
One exception to this myth is urban Southern California, where a diverse water supply, some wastewater reuse, judicious water storage and effective conservation measures have allowed many water districts to take the drought in stride.
2. The drought will sharply increase food prices.
Overall, the drought has reduced surface water supplies in California by one-third. However, increases in pumping underground water will make up three-quarters of this shortfall. When coupled with some shifting of crops, this will be sufficient to supply most fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Lost production will be mostly in commodities such as wheat, cotton and corn that can be grown elsewhere. For now, we do not expect more than a 5 to 10 percent increase in specialty food prices.
Of course, this masks the significant pockets of poverty and pain that farmers, farmworkers and agricultural communities are feeling. A recentUC Davis study predicts that idling cropland will eliminate 17,000 jobs. Unemployment will be most severe in some of California’s poorest regions. Many farmers have had to cut back on annual crops, and in some cases they’ve lost valuable orchards. Farmers sometimes find themselves spending all their profits just to buy water to keep their trees alive.
3. Conservation and technology are the answers.
Managing drought by improving technology is part of the solution, but it isn’t enough. New technology, such as low-flow toilets and water-saving appliances, plus personal conservation efforts, such as reducing the watering of lawns, has produced long-term declines in per capita water consumption in California’s cities. Some say such reductions in water use, along with new supply technologies, such as ocean desalination and wastewater reuse, can make California drought-proof. Although such efforts can improve water conditions, they’re very expensive andinsufficient alone.
And agricultural conservation does not always yield new water because the water saved often goes to refill groundwater basins or rivers. Studies from around the world consistently show that increased efficiency in agricultural irrigation often does not decrease net water use. Urban conservation is more effective. Since the early 1990s, reductions in per capita water use have kept California’s total urban use steady, despite the addition of 7 million new residents. However, further improvements in net water use will be harder to achieve.
4. An El Niño climate next year would solve the problem.
Rainfall in the Western United States is driven by variable temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Many people hold out hope for an El Niño year — when warmer water off the Pacific Coast of South America often causes more rain in the Southwestern United States — to stop the drought. While 2015 could be an El Niño year, bringing rainfall to dry parts of Southern California, it would not be enough. Historical statistics show that El Niño years are unlikely to replenish the areas that supply the majority of California’s water.
The essential buffer against droughts in California is the state’s supply of underground water, which is being seriously depleted this year. Over the past century, California has drawn down many of its aquifers by an average of about 20 feet of water. This over-pumping is costly because of the energy it requires, but more seriously, it reduces the groundwater available to buffer future droughts. And in some places, over-pumping increases the salinity of underground water, reducing crop yields or making the groundwater unsuitable for use. In many areas, several years of increased rain and decreased pumping are likely to be needed to replenish the state’s water supply.
California will remain susceptible to droughts and will become more susceptible until groundwater is more sustainably managed.
5. The drought is a problem only for the West.
California stocks the country’s salad bars, snack trays and grocery stores with produce, nuts and cheese. While the pain of the drought will stay in California in 2014, if 2015 is another dry or drought year, the effects will be felt nationwide. Certain fruits and vegetables might become scarce, and their prices will rise. This year, many farming and urban water districts are using up reserve stocks to maintain deliveries, and these will be depleted next year if the state doesn’t get more rain.
In addition, the falling levels of underground water will result in 5 to 10 percent of the wells in some regions going dry. In turn, a much larger area of crops and orchards will go out of production or be lost entirely as water supplies will be concentrated on just keeping trees alive, not watering them enough to produce full crop yields.
While the cost of a balanced diet is already a problem for many income groups, a continuation of the California drought would make better nutrition harder to afford across the whole country.
Los Angeles Times
EPA says proposed Delta water tunnel would harm environment
By BETTINA BOXALL
In a sharp rebuke of state plans for a massive water tunnel system in Northern California, federal environmental officials say that the project would violate pollution standards and could worsen conditions for imperiled fish species.
The comments by the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency echo concerns that have dogged the proposal to change the way Northern California water supplies are sent to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
They also underscore the difficulty the $25-billion project may have in getting the necessary environmental permits while also satisfying the water demands of the agencies that are to underwrite much of its cost.
In a letter accompanying 36 pages of formal comments posted online Thursday, regional EPA administrator Jared Blumenfeld outlines a number of problems with the project, which has been years in the planning.
The proposal calls for the construction of new intakes on the Sacramento River as it flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the state's water system. The river water would be diverted into two 30-mile tunnels running beneath the delta to existing pumping plants that now pull supplies from the interior delta.
Although proponents say that the new diversion point will improve delta conditions and ease pumping restrictions, the EPA concluded that it "would contribute to increased and persistent violations of water quality standards in the Delta," harming the supplies of local farmers and municipalities.
Operations "may contribute to declining populations of Delta smelt, Longfin smelt, green sturgeon and winter-run, spring-run, fall-run and late-fall run Chinook salmon," the document states.
The agency questions whether the extensive habitat restoration that is part of the project will be as beneficial as projected and emphasizes the need for adequate freshwater flows.
The critical comments are a major reason state officials announced Wednesday that they were revising the project's draft environmental review, signaling another delay in a planning process that has consistently fallen behind schedule.
A year ago, officials said a final decision on the proposal would be made in late 2014. But it will take months for the state and federal agencies involved in the project to address points raised in voluminous public comments, pushing a decision date well into next year.
California Sporotfishing Protection Alliance
Press Release For Immediate Release
Contact: Bill Jennings, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance: 209-464-5067; cell 209-938-9053; email, firstname.lastname@example.org; www.calsport.org
Water Bond: Insidious Threat to Delta and Central Valley Rivers Pork-filled gift basket to special interests won’t solve water problems
On 2 September 2014, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) released a 14-Point Statement of Opposition to Proposition 1. After carefully reviewing the provisions of the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, CSPA has concluded that Proposition 1 represents a grave and insidious threat to core environmental values and principles buttressing protection for fisheries and the environment.
Among numerous reasons the water bond is bad for California is that Proposition 1 undermines: the public trust doctrine by purchasing water the public already owns, at inflated prices, to protect the public’s rivers and environment; the principle of beneficiary pays by subsidizing projects that benefit special interests and the core principle that projects should be responsible for mitigating their adverse impacts. Furthermore, Proposition 1: paves the way for a new era of big dam building; is a pork-filled barrel of special interest subsidies, including BDCP; provides little near-term drought relief; eliminates public oversight; crowds out other critically needed investments in roads, schools and public health & safety; is fiscally irresponsible and sabotages efforts to meaningfully address California’s continuing water crisis.
CSPA Executive Director Bill Jennings observed, “Proposition 1 is a poster-child of why California is in a water crisis; it enriches water speculators but accomplishes little in addressing the drought, solving California’s long-term water needs, reducing reliance on the Delta or protecting our rivers and fisheries. When the pubic focuses a critical eye on Prop. 1, they’ll realize that it’s just another expensive pork-filled gift basket to special interests.”
CSPA joins the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, San Francisco Crab Boat Association, Restore the Delta, Center for Biological Diversity, California Water Impact Network, Food & Water Watch, Southern California Watershed Alliance, South Delta Water Agency, Central Delta Water Agency, Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fisherman’s Association and numerous other fishing, environmental, water and civic organizations in opposing Proposition 1.
Bill Jennings, Chairman
California Sportfishing Protection Alliance
3536 Rainier Avenue
Stockton, CA 95204
Our View: Finally, Delta tunnel plan’s flaws are questioned
Some scientists and environmentalists have been saying all along that it will be difficult to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by taking water out of it. Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strongly reinforced those doubts and called for changes to the $25 billion plan.
Gov. Jerry Brown and other proponents of the twin tunnels need to answer the EPA directly and publicly, either refuting the agency’s claims or significantly altering the proposal. Frankly, we feel a massive redo is in order.
As envisioned, the 40-foot-wide, 30-mile-long tunnels would divert much of the Sacramento River’s normal flow around the Delta and pipe it directly to the pumps where it would be siphoned off to the south. The Sacramento makes up 75 percent of the water that flows through the Delta, but the tunnels would be large enough to remove virtually all of it.
In its review of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the EPA said the tunnels “would contribute to increased and persistent violations of water quality standards” under the Clean Water Act.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s stated co-equal goals are to make water exports to 23 million people and 3 million acres of south-valley farmland more reliable while restoring the Delta’s collapsing ecosystem. The EPA report clearly shows where the priorities have actually been – exports, not restoration.
The federal agency’s letter recommended alternatives that would allow for “greater freshwater flows through the Delta.” That’s unwelcome news for groups such as the State Water Contractors Association, whose members rely on Delta exports; they have already have spent millions on environmental studies and plans to build the tunnels and some were already balking at the cost.
Stressing that more water should pass through the Delta – resulting in less water for exports – brings into question whether the plan can even pencil out for those expected to foot the bill.
The letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, submitted to the Department of Water Resources, listed a variety of problems. It questioned whether restoration plans would help fish populations recover, and called for more analysis of impacts upstream from the Delta and downstream to San Francisco Bay.
Those upstream impacts are the ones that will be felt here, in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The state has made little attempt to disguise the fact that it wants much more water from the San Joaquin River and its major tributaries – the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced – to make up for lost Sacramento flows. It has admitted – even as it pushed for groundwater regulations – that more water will be pumped from underground to make up for water lost to farmers.
Will Stelle, West Coast administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the letter responding to a draft environmental impact statement “raises genuine issues about water quality, strategy and compliance.” Yet, he remained confident the EPA’s concerns could be addressed. “We will deal with those issues. It may require adjustments in operating terms. … The biggest challenge for this project is getting the details right on operations.”
We beg to differ. The biggest challenge will be to create a project that does not impoverish one area of the state while enriching another. Creating more reliable water deliveries to the south will, by necessity, mean creating less reliable flows for us in the north. Whether he gets it or not, the EPA appears to.
The EPA letter said that while the tunnel diversions would “improve the water quality for agricultural and municipal water agencies that receive water exported from the Delta, water quality could worsen for farmers and municipalities who divert water directly from the Delta.”
The Department of Water Resources has delayed final environmental studies until next year. We suggest a much, much longer delay might be more appropriate.
Editorial: Brown needs to answer EPA on Delta tunnels
By the Editorial Board
Some scientists and environmentalists have been contending that water quality would suffer, pollution would increase and aquatic life would be harmed if California goes forward with plans to build twin tunnels in the Delta. Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strongly reinforced those concerns and called for changes in the multibillion-dollar plan.
Gov. Jerry Brown and other proponents of the twin tunnels need to answer the EPA directly and publicly, and either debunk the agency’s claims, or significantly alter the proposal.
As currently envisioned, the 40-foot-wide, 30-mile-long tunnels would draw water from theSacramento River and pipe it to the southern part of the Delta. In its review of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the EPA said the tunnels “would contribute to increased and persistent violations of water quality standards” under theClean Water Act.
The federal agency, in a recently released letter, recommended that an alternative plan be developed that would allow for “greater freshwater flows through the Delta.” That’s an unwelcomed analysis for water agencies south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that rely on water exports and already have ponied up millions for environmental studies as a prelude to building the tunnels.
Stressing that more water should pass through the Delta – resulting in less water for exports to farms and cities to the south – brings into question whether the $25 billion plan will pencil out for agricultural districts and municipal water agencies that would pay for the project.
The letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, and submitted to the California Department of Water Resources, enumerated a variety of problems and recommended alternatives. It questioned whether plans to restore Delta habitat would help fish populations recover, and called for more analysis of the impacts upstream from the Delta and downstream to the San Francisco Bay.
“This is not the first time and likely won’t be the last time that there is close scrutiny of the project,” Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, said in an interview. “This is part of the critical process.”
Will Stelle, West Coast administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the letter responding to a draft environmental impact statement “raises genuine issues about water quality, strategy and compliance.”
He also was confident about satisfying the EPA’s concerns. “We will deal with those issues,” he said in an interview. “It may require adjustments in operating terms. … The biggest challenge for this project is getting the details right on operations.”
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan calls for tunnels to export water more directly to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities. The goals would be to help restore the Delta’s collapsing ecosystem and provide a more reliable supply of fresh water to 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.
The EPA letter says that while the tunnel diversions would “improve the water quality for agricultural and municipal water agencies that receive water exported from the Delta, water quality could worsen for farmers and municipalities who divert water directly from the Delta.”
The letter, signed by EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld, recommended changes in the project to deal with potential increases in concentrations of salinity, chloride, bromide, mercury, pesticides and selenium. Blumenfeld suggested alternatives, such as better “integrated water management, water conservation, levee maintenance and decreased reliance on the Delta.”
The California Department of Water Resources has delayed final environmental studies until next year.
In his debate on Thursday with Republican challenger Neel Kashkari, Brown said the tunnel project wasn’t fully cooked. That clearly is true.
When Kashkari cited the EPA criticism, and noted it came from President Barack Obama’s administration, Brown shot back: “That doesn’t make it right, by the way.” To satisfy skeptics, Brown will need to provide a far more detailed analysis about the effect on the ecological health of the Delta.
Editorial: Water law takes a new and scary turn
The package of bills passed by the Legislature Aug. 29 to regulate California groundwater usage were called the biggest change in water law in our lifetimes by Butte County's top water official. And there's not a bit of hyperbole in that.
What the state did is assume authority over the water beneath our feet. It assumed authority over the water beneath your property, if you're a landowner.
It's the first time that's happened in California. The feds have always asserted control over surface water, but whatever was underground — oil, minerals, water — was solely the concern of the person who owned that bit of the Earth's surface above.
Sure, Gov. Brown still has to sign the legislation, but there's no one who thinks that won't happen. There are likely to be a flurry of lawsuits over government taking a private resource without compensation, but California isn't breaking new ground here. Groundwater regulation is the rule rather than the exception throughout the West, and it's almost curious regulation-drunk California hasn't gotten to it sooner. The law will be upheld.
And it's really hard to argue that it isn't necessary. It's unfortunate, because it's one of those laws that says, "don't do something stupid that harms your neighbors." Such laws are necessary because people get stupid (well, greedy) and do things that harm their neighbors.
The particular act of stupidity that prompted this legislation is overdrafting, which is sucking up more groundwater than the land can provide.
It's stupid, because it drops the water table, forcing deeper and deeper wells. Aquifers don't stop at property lines, so every moron who pumps too much impacts his neighbors' wells too. And overdrafting can lead to compaction of the soil that makes it pretty much sterile to all but the hardiest weeds.
It's not a huge problem up here, where the ag economy is based on family farms that have generations on the ground and an eye to the family's heritage, as well as long-term cooperative relationships with their neighbors who see things in a similar way. Farmers here aren't going to hurt their family's future, or their neighbors and friends
There are plenty of farmers like that in the San Joaquin Valley too, but corporate farms are more common. There, concern for a family's legacy is replaced by maximizing the profits of stockholders. Stupid things are done, like planting higher-value crops like almonds that require a reliable water supply, even though there is no reliable water supply.
Well, there is a reliable water supply, if you have deep enough pockets to drill ever deeper, and don't care about your neighbors who can't keep up in the race to reach the center of the earth, and ultimately will see their farms turn to dust.
That's happening, and that's why these bills were passed. And that's why it's hard to argue with the legislation. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be afraid of it.
The state of California, which doesn't have a record for gentle or even reasonable enforcement of its regulatory authority, is taking charge of yet another resource, and the most crucial one of all. Once the water beneath the ground becomes the state's water, it can limit private abuses, but it can also foster public abuses. If it can say someone is using too much, it can also say someone is hoarding too much and it needs to share.
We'd be the hoarders, folks.
It's unclear what will happen, because the law is, unsurprisingly, incredibly vague. The law says the bureaucracy will figure it out over the next few years. No one has to submit a groundwater management plan until 2020 (we here get a couple of extra years), and no one knows what the plan must include to past state muster. They'll let us know. Sometime. They'll let us know when.
It's hard to imagine how there could be a bigger change in water law in our lifetime. And it's hard to imagine how there could be a scarier one.