California's water problems are more than a fish-versus-people struggle or the fall-out from weather-related drought.
Rather, the water woes of the nation's No. 1 agricultural state are the result of public policy gone wrong, especially where the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is concerned.
That was the general message from a 10-member panel that spoke Feb. 11 at World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif.
The session, which took place on the third and final day of the annual farm and equipment show, addressed California's water crisis and the ESA. Panelists represented farmers, farm workers, water agencies and legislators.
"This is not about fish versus people,” said panelist Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager for the Friant Water Authority. Friant represents 19 water districts on the eastern side of California's San Joaquin Valley.
"We need balance in the ESA,” Santoyo added. "Farming and agriculture are quickly becoming the endangered species, unless we all unite to fight. If we don't, I guarantee you that slowly but surely, agriculture will go away.”
"California is facing a catastrophic situation,” said another panel member, John Harris, CEO of Harris Ranch, a large, diversified beef and crop operation on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley near Coalinga. "We are running on empty. We desperately need water.”
Harris said his operation normally farms 13,000 acres but is down to 5,000 acres this year as a result of water shortages. Farmers are practicing all the conservation methods they can, he said, but it's not enough.
Environmentalists have used the ESA and its resulting biological opinions that protect wildlife "to destroy agricultural growth,” Harris said. Like others on the panel, Harris denounced the actions that "allow 120,000 acre/feet of water a day to run into the delta and then to the ocean,” where it's lost.
Panel members shared disappointment with a federal judge's ruling in a Fresno, Calif., courtroom the day before. U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger ruled to keep closed the massive water pumps that control the flow of the water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the state's water system. The flow restrictions were put into place last year to protect the delta smelt, a minnow-like fish, from being killed in the pumps. Ag interests recently had asked for the pumps to be turned on so water can flow south to parched farms.
Speakers said they had received word from Senate Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that she would work to modify the biological opinion on the delta smelt. She may try to attach it to the federal jobs bill, Harris said. If successful, the amendment would allow for increased water allocations to farmers.
"I saw the look in her eye, and she was deadly serious,” said Santoyo.
Johnny Amaral, chief of staff for California congressman Devin Nunes, repeated what he had heard an Idaho Congressman recently say: "The ESA wasn't written by God but by man. It can be changed.”
Even though there is precedent in New Mexico to challenge the ESA, Amaral said, "This Congress doesn't have the will to change the legislation.”
The recent court ruling on water restrictions "has increased efforts among state legislators to do what they can for the state's water supply and to allow for us to keep trees alive on the west side,” Amaral said.
Widely called "a man-made drought” in the state's farming circles, California's water shortages have caused an estimated 200,000 acres of tomatoes, cotton, peppers, onions and other cropland to lie fallow this year, particularly on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. In some farming communities, like Mendota, Calif., unemployment has soared to 40% as farm laborers go without field work.
Panel member Piedad Ayala, a farmer on the Valley's west side and the founder of Water for All, spoke out for farm workers.
"They have been hurt the most,” Ayala said. "They have lost their jobs. They have no other source of income. First, they lose their jobs, then their cars, then their homes.”
Ayala shared his indignation at witnessing environmental interests phone in their views from off-site locations during the water hearing in Fresno the day before, while the local farming community, including farm workers, sat present in the courtroom.
Ayala also said it pained him to see farm workers, "the people who work so hard,” reduced to standing in food lines, where some of the food offerings were grown in other countries.
"It's time to raise our voice,” said Ayala. "The pumps should be on.”
California's agricultural industry can expect no assistance from the U.S. Department of the Interior or the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said panel member Erick Johnson of The Water Agency Inc. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has already decided that California's water woes are due to drought, he added.
But Johnson said drought was not the cause of the state's water shortages. Recent weeks of "great snow storms” have replenished several key reservoirs, he said. The real challenges are the state's ongoing water infrastructure troubles and court-ordered reductions in water deliveries from major water projects.
The Bureau of Reclamation has refused to increase water allocations to help agriculture, Johnson added. "It's absolutely criminal what they're doing,” he said.
Both the state and federal government operate massive water projects that deliver water to the state's Central Valley, where some 200 crops are grown.
While there's no silver bullet to end California's water crisis, one proposal calls for a tunnel to be built beneath the Delta to deliver water supplies. Still years away, the tunnel could cost as much as $11.7 billion to build. Proposed legislation to build a peripheral canal around the Delta was defeated by California voters in the 1980s.
Catherine Merlo is Western editor for Dairy Today. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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World Ag Expo Feb. 9 in Tulare, Calif.