Central Valley farm drought disaster might have been mitigated

The ongoing 100-year drought didn’t have to be a disaster for California farmers. The tragedy could have been predicted — and was.

A little-known 2008 study by four graduate students at the University of California, Santa Barbara warned that farmers first needed to be given replacement water before their water was taken for river restoration.

The river restoration was ordered in 2006 by federal Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in the case NRDC vs. Rodgers. In that case, the National Resources Defense Council complained that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation failed to release enough water from Friant Dam to prevent the destruction of the river’s salmon runs.

Karlton wrote, “In the words of the Department of Interior, Friant Dam’s operations have been a ‘disaster’ for Chinook salmon.”

But in 2008, the students predicted shifting the water from farms to salmon would be a disaster for the farms. The students were Laura Bauer, Natalija Glusac, Marina Kasa and Kara Mathews from the U.C. Santa Barbara Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

The study was titled, “The San Joaquin River Settlement: Analysis and Implications for Future Negotiations and Funding.” It was supervised by environmental economist Gary Libecap, PhD.

The study calculated that total water usage in the San Joaquin Valley decreased by 800,000 acre-feet during the 1991 drought. And surface water deliveries dropped 53 percent below normal.

The study emphatically concluded:

“As a result, obtaining the water necessary for restoration projects will result in water being reallocated from current users, decreasing the water supply many of these users rely upon for their livelihood. As such, it is necessary to develop water supply mitigation measures.” 

Two options were discussed for mitigating lost farm water:

1. Get more water by importing it from the Sacramento Delta, transfers from other water users, or increased groundwater pumping;

2. Decrease water demand by shifting crop types or reducing planted acreage.

Not discussed: Lining irrigation ditches or other technological ways to lessen water losses.

Planning failure in farm water diversions for fish

The implication drawn from the U.C. student study is: If you’re going to mandate diversions of river water away from farms for fish, fund farm water replacement projects first in the event of a catastrophic drought.

Otherwise what occurs is that, when a prolonged drought hits, there is no water storage to buffer the impact on farmers. Environmental court orders and regulations have reduced 58 percent of the farm water allocations in the Central Valley Project since 1990 (see Slide No. 5 here).

Farming has now become unsustainable in much of the Central Valley because there is no reliability of water from which to make agricultural investments.

Congressional actions

Following Karlton’s court order, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pushed her San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act H.R. 146 through Congress as a trailer bill to the Omnibus Lands Act of 2009. This effectively circumvented the farm lobby in Congress. 

Feinstein took advantage of a political window of opportunity at the time when the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. In 2011, Republicans took back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

H.R. 146 called for the restoration of salmon runs in the San Joaquin River at a cost of $800 million to $1 billion to create a man-made link across a 60-mile dry stretch of the river that historically dried up in past major droughts.  However, only $88 million was authorized under H.R. 146 for planning and pilot project activities.

The appropriation of the remainder of the funding has since been blocked in House after the GOP came back into power.


Additionally, a $7 per acre-foot of water surcharge was assessed on Central Valley Farmers to pay for the remainder of the restoration.  Up to 2014, farmers paid $180 million into the restoration fund.  Now that an historic drought has hit the state, salmon spawning pools and river runs are shrinking and farmers have ended up subsidizing their own demise.

One of the engineering problems with the restoration of the river for fish is that taking from 247,000 to 356,000 acre-feet of water from farmers resulted in nearby farms switching to reliance on their groundwater rights. Subsequently, the riverbed sank due to subsurface water withdrawals.  Now engineers cannot figure out how to get water to flow uphill across the 60-mile dry gap.

It remains a quandary why courts dictated that salmon runs had to be restored through rich agricultural lands instead of on wild rivers such as portions of the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers.

Feinstein’s H.R 146 contains a provision to allocate $102 million of funds collected from farmers’ higher water rates to replenish their lost farm water allocations. But the replacement water projects have never been implemented.

The fail safe drought planning principle

When it comes to environmental mitigation, parks and open space bureaucracies want their dedication of mitigation lands and restoration projects completed upfront.  However, when it comes to upfront mitigation of impacts to farmers, it’s tough luck. The consequences of this policy now are becoming catastrophic, as the drought has decimated Central Valley farms for what could be years. 

A “fail safe” drought planning principle was ignored in the court order and ensuing legislation to implement the restoration of the San Joaquin River.  If it had been adhered to, Central Valley farmers would not have had 800,000 acre-feet of water flushed to the ocean in 2012 without recapturing it for farmers.  If a fail safe policy had been adhered to, new groundwater recharge basins, upstream reservoirs such as the proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir, and water efficiency measures might have been built out before undertaking any fish restoration activities.

The courts are perpetuating this policy failure in their rulings that the Endangered Species Act preempts state water law in Texas, which also is experiencing catastrophic drought.

“People Before Fish” means pre-mitigation of lost farm water

It is for the above reasons that a group of Republican Central Valley congressmen — Reps. Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and David Valadao — have repeatedly tried in vain to get the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, H.R. 146 repealed by passing the new San Joaquin River Water Reliability Act, H.R. 1837. Recently, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, visited California to back an effort to again try to repeal H.R. 146.

The drought is opening the public’s eyes to the disastrous policies of river restoration and what farmers mean when they say “put people before fish.”

Feinstein, who sponsored the San Joaquin River Restoration Act, has tried to balance fish habitat restoration and farm water issues. But the Federal Endangered Species Act is imbalanced and ignores potentially catastrophic droughts. Rep. Nunes asserts his H.R. 1837 bill is a more balanced approach to drought management.

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