Drought battle lines forming
To put this version of the California 2015 Drought Story in some perspective, there will be litigation by agribusiness and the damage from over-pumping groundwater is not something the Governor and his perpetually upwardly mobile functionaries want to think about. However, the state may be operating at its legal limits and probably costly litigation will verify that.
Meanwhile, agribusiness and the remaining farmers with permanent crops, which water districts with junior rights like Westlands have long encouraged its growers to plant, will have to decide how to use their private property rights to groundwater.
A brief study of history and the new federally subsidized revenue insurance in the 1914 Farm Bill indicates that "California agriculture" will dutifully follow the counsel of an anonymous hedge-fund accountant and "expense out" the aquifers and collect money from the federal government for the land subsidence.
This is how we see the broad outline of how this system is going to operate in this drought. First, the federal government devises a Farm Bill run by insurance companies (let us not forget that the Farm Bureau is an insurance company) it is heavily subsidizing for the benefit of the wealthiest members of the "agricultural community." Second, the feds radically reduce flow to the Central Valley Project, curtailing much of the water deliveries from the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the Friant-Kern Water Authority (except for the immaculately conceived Exchange Contractors who will continue to draw from both), and the state exercises further veto power on surface water deliveries. Third, irrigation districts will pump more groundwater themselves and buy it from whoever hasn't already sold theirs to Metropolitan Water District of Southern California or, in the case of the locally Infamous Sloan Deal, to the Del Puerto Water District. Fourth, the state has mandated that "local land-use authorities," i.e. counties, establish in coming years self-governing "sustainable groundwater agencies" controlled by "stakeholders" (i.e. individuals and representatives of interests who aren't in business for the health of the groundwater aquifer), under provisions in state law to be enforced by state agencies in the event the stakeholders can't seem to police themselves. With seventeen years of experience meeting with stakeholders on water issues in one San Joaquin Valley county, we can say with a great degree of confidence that it is inconceivable to the stakeholders to see beyond their own individual interests. Therefore, it will be some years and many lawsuits before groundwater pumping will be brought under any enforced constraint
For years, the state Legislature avoided water issues like the plague and the state press went right along with it. Water stories were almost as dull and even distasteful as sewer stories. California did not wish to look at anything that might be conceived under the title of "infrastructure," a dirty word in the minds of ambitious editors kissing the posteriors of developers and their enablers in local government. The only way to fund necessary work was through initiatives, not a deliberative process. Then, when the Legislature was pressured by the Popular Hun, our former governor, into writing the water initiative to end all water initiatives, they overloaded it so badly with pork it sunk from sight for nearly a decade, only to be salvaged in the current drought in a somewhat less porcine package. The state is facing this extremely serious drought with a term-limited legislators who, in their brief tenure, can hardly be expected to understand the water issues of their own districts let alone the state as a whole.
Governor Brown, on the other hand, learned more about water politics from jump-street at his daddy's dinner table than most of us will ever know. But perhaps what he's learned is that there is no help for any of it and political leadership amounts to just staying clear of the sharp edges of antagonistic water interests. -- blj
California warns of deep water rights curtailments amid drought
by David Siders and Dale Kasler
Jerry Brown labored to defend the measure’s focus on urban water use instead of agriculture, which consumes far more water than cities and towns.
The drought has already pummeled farmers, Brown said, with diminished state and federal water allocations forcing them to uproot trees and fallow thousands of acres of fields.
But while Brown defends agriculture’s heavy use of water, he is also considering water rights curtailments that could dramatically affect the industry.
The State Water Resources Control Board has warned water rights holders to expect restrictions on their right to divert water from rivers and streams.
Last year, the state curtailed the water rights of a host of junior rights holders, including 2,648 rural and urban agencies in the Sacramento Valley.
But with conditions worsening, the water board said last week that it might issue curtailment notices to the state’s most senior water rights holders – those claimed before establishment of the state’s water rights permitting process in 1914.
The last time water rights that old were curtailed was in the late 1970s, officials said.
“If dry conditions persist through the spring, it is anticipated that all holders of post-1914 and many holders of pre-1914 water rights in certain watersheds will receive curtailment notices soon,” the board said in a letter.
If water rights are curtailed, farmers are expected to pump more groundwater or buy water from other users – or go short. Other agencies, such as the city of Sacramento, have access to stored water.
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the water board, said districts in the San Joaquin Valley are likely to get hit harder by curtailments than in the Sacramento Valley.
“Because the rain has been uneven, the Sacramento (Valley) systems have been more flush than the San Joaquin River systems, so we will be going further up the seniority curve on the San Joaquin River than we are on the Sacramento River,” Marcus said.
Oakdale Irrigation District, which serves a largely agricultural area east of Manteca, is one of those districts holding pre-1914 rights that would have once seemed off-limits to the state’s water authorities. Now the district is bracing for the possible loss of water.
“For us it’s going to be a first-time ever summer,” said district general manager Steve Knell.
Even if the state doesn’t curtail its rights, the district expects to limits its farmers to no more than 30 inches of water per acre this summer, he said.
That could leave growers in a pinch. The district’s almond trees and grapevines generally take 40 to 50 inches, he said. Pasture for beef cattle can require as much as 60 inches, he said.
He said he expects growers will try to buy water from other sources to make up for the loss: “There’s going to be a lot of innovative things that are going to have to occur.”
On Wednesday, a week after ordering a 25 percent reduction statewide in urban water consumption, Brown met for several hours with water and farm officials and environmental groups at the Capitol.
“The challenge here, aside from getting the water, is to be able to collaborate together and not try to blame other people and point fingers,” Brown said. “This water system in California is extremely complex. It affects different people differently. Some people do much better than other people, and in the midst of all that to be fair, to be sustainable, and to have foresight into the future will take some wisdom and some self-restraint.”
The drought, now stretching into a fourth year, has strained California’s patchwork system of water rights, with competing interests vying for an increasingly dwindling resource.
“The state’s passed out water rights like Goldman Sachs passes out securities,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.
With the expectation that water would continue to flow forever, Jennings said, landowners “mortgaged their futures, their lives, their dreams … without reading the small print that this was an interruptible source, that it might not always be available.”
He said the state is only now suffering the consequences of its “failure to bring the water demand and water supply into balance.”
Some districts hold a polyglot of different rights, and a state-ordered curtailment could bring legal complications. The massive Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District north of Sacramento has pre-1914 water rights. It also has a “settlement contract” with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that says the district can’t be cut back any more than 25 percent, said general manager Thad Bettner.
If the state seeks to curtail Glenn Colusa’s rights, “then the system just starts to dissolve pretty quickly,” Bettner said. “There will be disputes …We’re talking about legal battles.”
Earlier this year, the water board ordered more than 1,000 property owners with claims to water in the Central Valley to prove their claims.
But Chris Scheuring, a lawyer for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said it remains a challenge for some farmers to produce proof of decades-old rights established under a procedure that was once “as simple as posting a notice on a tree by the river.”
Scheuring said, “If the state board takes an action to curtail a very senior and very large water right, I think that some party is going to be willing to litigate for the principle that the state board is not the appropriate enforcement venue.”
Marcus said the board believes it has the authority. The governor’s executive order “has given us more tools” to enforce curtailment orders, she said.
Representatives of some water districts that could see their rights curtailed said they will accept the state’s order as long as legal protocol is followed, with junior rights holders cut off before senior rights holders.
Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, said he expects farmers to increase groundwater pumping to compensate for water rights curtailments.
Still, Shields lamented that farmers in the district have been “playing by the rules” for more than 100 years, counting on water they hold by right.
“Our farmers made investments to develop storage and to acquire those rights and invested in land accordingly,” he said. “So to have those rights challenged even under a temporary curtailment for the remainder of the season ... that does give us some concern.”
The district is already restricting water usage among its growers, said Dave Kamper, 56, a board member of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.
Kamper raises 300 acres of almonds east of Manteca and is a partner in an almond-processing business. Because most growers got about 9 inches of rain this winter, the almond trees should survive, although the crop will probably be light.
“We may sacrifice some yield,” he said.
If the district’s water rights are curtailed by the state, some trees could conceivably be lost, Kamper said.
He said, “We’ll get by – different levels of discomfort, I guess.”
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Senior water rights generally fall into two categories in California.
Pre-1914 appropriative rights: Rights claimed prior to the establishment of the state’s water rights permit process in 1914.
Riparian rights: Rights held by owners of property that abuts a stream or river.
Junior water rights are generally those claimed after 1914 (a simplification so gross it is obfuscation)
Source: State Water Resources Control Board
California farmers mount PR campaign to counter backlash over water use
by David Siders and Dale Kasler
When Gov. Jerry Brown announced his unprecedented water use reduction order last week, California farmers were largely spared.
They quickly developed another problem: Bad PR.
At issue was the apparent disconnect between Brown’s focus on urban water use and the fact that agriculture – not cities or towns – accounts for roughly 80 percent of all water used by people in California.
Newspaper and television stations hammered on the statistic, while critics counted gallons of water required for different foods. The almond, an especially profitable and water-heavy crop, became a national symbol of California’s water problems, forcing growers to fight back by promoting the nutritional value of their food.
Members of the California Water Alliance, a Hanford-based group of agricultural interests, called their consultant in dismay.
“All of a sudden it’s ‘Farmers use 80 percent of the water,’ ” said the consultant, Hector Barajas. “It caught a lot of farmers by surprise.”
In an effort to push back, industry officials began meeting in recent days with politicians, business people and journalists. They posted graphics online showing an alternate interpretation of agriculture’s water use, and they plan to run Internet ads.
On the total water use numbers themselves, there is broad agreement. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, about 9 million acres of farmland in the state are irrigated, representing about 80 percent of all water used by people.
But that figure excludes roughly 50 percent of all water in California dedicated for environmental purposes, and farmers complain some water in the ecologically sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is off-limits to them.
On Thursday, Matt Sparks, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, distributed a Washington Examiner editorial lambasting protections for Delta smelt.
Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the PPIC, said that while stringent environmental standards have affected the agriculture industry’s access to water, “the problem is it’s grossly overstated.” More than half of California’s so-called “environmental water” occurs in rivers in the state’s North Coast, far from agricultural users, he said.
“There is no denying the fact that in human applications of water ... 80 percent of that goes to agriculture,” Mount said, “You can’t change that.”
Farmers argue that so-called “environmental water” should be taken into account when calculating total water use, putting agriculture’s consumption at closer to 40 percent.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, made this case to reporters outside a drought forum in Sacramento on Thursday.
But with numbers, Wenger said, “It’s just so hard, you know, once that snowball starts going down the hill ... it’s pretty hard to get in front of it and divert it.”
While Wenger spoke, Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the federation, said 80 percent is “a statistic that’s used as a weapon.” He suggested that instead of saying a certain amount of water is used for agriculture, say that water is “used to produce food.”
Wenger fears that if the drought persists, farmers will be vilified, potentially giving rise to efforts to restrict their water rights.
“If we’re in a 10-year drought or a longer drought,” said Wenger, a walnut and almond farmer, “with the rhetoric that we’re seeing today, we would see water rights re-appropriated.”
He said he voiced his concerns at a meeting Brown called Wednesday with water and farm officials and environmental groups at the Capitol. Wenger said Brown’s executive secretary, Nancy McFadden, was sympathetic, volunteering that the administration was “getting beat up on this 80 percent number.”
The meeting came just days after Brown was asked about agriculture’s heavy water use on ABC’s “This Week.”
Brown, who ordered a 25 percent reduction in urban water consumption, said of the 80 percent statistic, “Yeah, you bet it’s true.”
But the Democratic governor went on to defend farmers, who he said have already been punished with diminished state and federal water allocations. Farmers have fallowed thousands of acres of fields.
In the ABC interview, Brown said farmers are “not watering their lawn or taking longer showers. They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America.”
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said Thursday that “it’s understandable that people want to point fingers at first.”
But she said California’s farms are “something to be valued” and that if “you like fruit and vegetables, you like agriculture.”
This feeling is widely held outside of the administration, as well. Agriculture is so prominent in California that it has an advantage in any public relations war over water use, said Barbara O’Connor, a political analyst and retired communications professor at Sacramento State.
“It’s part of the Golden State,” she said. “It’s part of our economy. We have farm to fork up here. People are into it emotionally.”
But O’Connor said pressure may build if the drought persists. Until then, she said, the public is unlikely to turn on agriculture.
“When restrictions on water use in cities become much more rigid and all the palm trees start to die in the medians and people are pulling out their yards, then we can talk again,” she said. “But right now, no ... I think the average person treasures (agriculture). It’s part of our legacy.”
Valley cities could see steep residential water cuts under state plan
Valley water use, conservation goals
Valley urban water agencies would have among the highest water reduction targets under a proposal this week from the State Water Resources Control Board.
Daily per-capita home water use (in gallons), Sept. 2014
Bakman Water Company
*Served by California Water Service Co.
Source: State Water Resources Control Board
• Several central San Joaquin Valley communities may be required to conserve 35% of their residential water use under proposed state conservation goals.
• The State Water Resources Control Board’s plan would set conservation goals between 10% and 35% for communities.
• Cities that have shown they are conserving water will have lower goals than those that have not.
Gov. Jerry Brown may have ordered a 25% cut in water use statewide due to the ongoing drought, but a host of Valley cities could have to do even more.
Clovis, Visalia and Hanford are among the Valley’s biggest water users, and as a result, may have to meet a 35% water conservation goal under a proposed plan released this week by the State Water Resources Control Board.
The biggest user in the central San Joaquin Valley ? According to state officials, that would be Kingsburg, at over 300 gallons per person per day. By comparison, Fresno’s residents use 135 gallons a day.
The draft plan, released Tuesday, sets water reduction targets for cities throughout the state as part of the effort to stretch California’s dwindling water supply. The state is in its fourth year of a historic drought and Brown has enacted emergency measures to slash the state’s overall urban water usage by 25%.
As part of that plan, the board is proposing a series of conservation targets for communities based on how good a job they have been doing to save water. It looked at the amount of water saved from June 2014 to February 2015 and compared that to a comparable period in 2013, the baseline year.
The board has created a sliding scale so communities that have been conserving water will have lower goals than those that haven’t significantly conserved this past year, or over the last decade since the last major drought.
The board’s conservation goals range from 10% to 35%. Valley communities with the highest per-capita residential water use in September, and who would get a 35% goal, were Kingsburg, Madera County and Merced. Kingsburg’s residential per-capita use in September was 308 gallons while the city of Reedley was 128 gallons.
George Kostyrko, spokesman for the board, said the agency will accept public comment on the proposal for a week as it prepares emergency conservation regulations. The board is expected to vote on those regulations in early May.
Kostyrko said that the state will want to see communities moving towards meeting their conservation goals by the summer.
Clovis may have to meet a 35% conservation target. It conserved only 10% of its water usage from June 2014 to February 2015.
Lisa Koehn, assistant public utilities director in Clovis, said the city can do better at reducing its water usage, adding that one possible outcome may be cutting back on the number of outdoor watering days. Clovis residents can still water three days a week. Fresno allows its residents to water only two days a week.
“We will have to give outdoor watering some thought,” she said. “We will be talking to the council about this soon.”
Koehn said that while meeting the 35% conservation goal is achievable, it won’t be easy.
“People have a lot of money invested in their landscape and some will lose their turf,” Koehn said. “It just gets too hot here in the summer.”
Jerry Brown does too have a plan! -- Laird
John Laird: Gov. Brown has a long-term water plan
by John Laird
For the first time in California’s history, we are faced with mandatory water use restrictions. After Gov. Jerry Brown made this announcement last week, the Fresno Bee Editorial Board asked on April 3, “Where is your long-term water plan, Gov. Brown?”
In January of 2014, the governor released the California Water Action Plan — a five-year blueprint for California water infrastructure and policy. It is a long-term water plan. Not only will this plan help us manage through this drought, it will prepare us for what’s next.
This is not a plan that has been hidden — it was the cornerstone of the water bond efforts last year, the basis of revised water system operations, a motivation for the groundwater management act, and the guidepost for expenditures in the governor’s last two budgets.
Gov. Brown highlighted it in his last two State of the State Addresses, saying in 2014, “Right now, it is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought. … As the State Water Action Plan lays out, water recycling, expanded storage and serious groundwater management must all be part of the mix. So too must be investments in safe drinking water, particularly in disadvantaged communities.”
The plan was developed by policy experts and scientists to guide California’s efforts to enhance water supply reliability, restore damaged and destroyed ecosystems, and improve the resilience of our infrastructure. Water managers, environmental advocates, agricultural interests, and others were solicited for feedback, ensuring all were heard.
Key actions are:
• Make conservation a way of life.
• Expand water storage capacity and improve groundwater management.
• Increase regional self-reliance and integrated water management across all levels of government.
• Achieve the co-equal goals for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration.
• Protect and restore important ecosystems.
• Manage and prepare for dry periods.
• Provide safe water for all communities.
• Increase flood protection.
• Increase operational and regulatory efficiency.
• Identify sustainable and integrated financing opportunities.
The water bond’s $7.5 billion investment in California’s water future responds to the plan by addressing water recycling and storm-water-capture infrastructure, desalinization projects, watershed habitat renewal, and includes $2.7 billion for new water storage.
Gov. Brown’s 2015-16 budget proposes $1.7 billion for implementation of the plan. This includes funding for safe drinking water, watershed protection and restoration, regional water reliability, water storage, water recycling, flood control and groundwater sustainability.
Last week’s snowpack measurement was 6% of normal — the smallest since the measurements began. That is why Gov. Brown is now mandating 25% cutbacks for water use in cities and towns, instituting an aggressive lawn buyback program in partnership with local agencies, fast-tracking water-efficiency standards for appliances and other efforts.
In Fresno, many people are also aware of the ongoing, year-over-year impact to California’s farms. This year, water deliveries to most farmers from the Central Valley Water project are 0% and the State Water Project allocation will be 20%. Additional curtailments may be on the way. The impacts are dramatic — hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland are being fallowed and 17,000 farm workers are jobless.
We are taking short-term actions and making long-range plans to ensure California can make it through this drought and manage even better through the next one.
The actions of all Californians will determine whether we meet the challenge of this drought and the California Water Action Plan will guide those efforts.
John Laird is secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.