Drought Wars: Where did the farm water go?

Drought Wars: Where did the farm water go?

Where did that farm water go? That’s a major question stalking California during its record drought.

The finger-pointing sure is under way. On Feb. 4, environmental writer Dan Bacher pointed at state water managers, claiming they made the California drought worse by taking water from Northern California farms and fish and sending it to Southern California cities.

Bacher claimed 827,000 acre-feet of water was sent to Southern California in 2013, where some of it was consumed by cities and some stored in Castaic Lake and Pyramid Lake, both North of Los Angeles. Bacher’s claim evokes the image of another water grab by Los Angeles almost a century ago and dramatized in the move “Chinatown.”

However, Bacher is talking about water from the State Water Project that primarily serves Southern cities, not Central Valley farms where the farm drought has hit the hardest.

Ocean in 2012

A finger pointing another direction belongs to Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition. He insists that more than 800,000-acre feet of federal Central Valley Project water was flushed to the ocean in 2012 to reestablish salmon runs in the San Joaquin River.

Water from the San Joaquin River was allowed to flow to the ocean to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act, a federal court order, and the San Joaquin River Restoration Act of 2009, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Wade’s claim evokes images of John Steinbeck’s epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, where farmers, ironically, escaped from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to Central California.

According to Wade:

“Regarding water use in the state, it is important to remember that in an average year, the people of California commit 48% of our available water for environmental use, while 41% is used for farming, and 11% for California’s municipal and industrial uses.

“The causes of our current shortage are several — most critical is the drier than typical past two years, but we can’t just blame mother nature. We shouldn’t forget our own failure to put away water for leaner times. Just last year we had an opportunity to store up to 815,000 acre feet of water — enough for well over 4 million people, or five cities the size of San Jose. Californians must prepare for drought when water is available or suffer, as we are now, for our lack of action.”  


Among those directly affected, both fishermen and farmers allege the drought is man-made — that reservoirs were emptied before a rare entrenched winter dry spell set in. But there are other views.

Environmental organizations such as the California branch of The Nature Conservancy want to point the finger away from the Endangered Species Act and toward nature and a lack of rainfall.  But a severe drought is natural and must be planned for.

Central Valley Project farm water is co-dependent on:

a) Water releases North of the Delta;

b) Water releases from Shasta Lake and Trinity Lake into the Sacramento River that flow into the Delta;

c) South-of-the-Delta water flowing from the Sierras into the San Joaquin River, which also runs to the Delta.

A 60-mile stretch of the San Joaquin River becomes high and dry in low-rainfall years and wet in high-rainfall years.  In 2006, a federal judge ordered that this sometimes dry reach of the San Joaquin River must be wetted with enough water every year to allow for salmon runs, even if nature never historically permitted uninterrupted flows of water.

This court action resulted in taking water and money from farmers to keep an intermittently dry reach of the river perpetually wet.  Part of the problem of restoring the San Joaquin River for salmon runs is that engineers have to figure out how to run river water uphill during dry years.  The only way to do that is to send a massive gusher of water through the river that takes all future storage water with it.


Some water finger-pointing went to court last year.

In May 2013, the Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority in Eastern San Joaquin Valley sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Department of the Interior, to stop the release of 109,000 acre-feet of water from Trinity Lake to save salmon for Indian Tribes and sports fishermen. In August 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California briefly issued, then rescinded, a restraining order on releasing the water. So the water is flowing now.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and the Yurok and Hoopla Indian Tribes responded to the suit. They wished to continue diverting the water to the Trinity River, which joins the Klamath River and flows to the sea. Earthjustice, an environmentalist group, announced on Aug. 13:

“FRESNO, CA — The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, represented by Earthjustice, filed papers today in the U.S. District Court in Fresno defending the planned release of Trinity River water needed to keep salmon alive.

“This action is in response to a lawsuit filed last week by the Westland[s] Water District and others in California’s Central Valley, demanding this water for their future crops, regardless of impacts on salmon or coastal fishing communities depending on those salmon runs for their livelihoods.

“The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water release plan would help prevent another disaster like the Klamath River Fish Kill of 2002. That year very low flows and high temperatures contributed to a massive die-off of adult Chinook salmon that is considered one of the single worst adult fish kills in U.S. history.”

The water districts are are located in the Eastern Central Valley and provide water from the federal Central Valley Project to 600,000-acres of farms in Fresno and Kings Counties. 


Concerning the release of the water, specifically the storage water behind Trinity Lake Dam, on Aug. 6 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact” to the environment.

However, federal law does not require a similar “impact” statement concerning the potential harm done to farms and small rural towns when their water is diverted just before a drought.

As a result, the Bureau of Reclamation reported it released 453,000 total acre-feet of water in a dry year in 2013 for fish restoration flows from the Trinity River.

Nature only waited a matter of five months before the drought struck hard. On Jan. 17, 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown declared an official drought emergency and suspended the California Environmental Quality Act.

Bi-Partisan Leaders Opposed Trinity Lake Water Releases

Congress’ fingers also were out and pointing.

Some California congressmen from both parties knew that if the Trinity Lake waters were diverted from farms that a drought would harm their constituents.  That is why the water release was opposed by a bipartisan group of Reps. Doug LaMalfa and Jeff Denham, both Republicans; and John Garamendi and Jim Costa, both Democrats.

On August 2, 2013, these four Congressmen sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell questioning whether there was an overestimation of the water that needed to be released for fish from Trinity Lake.

Conversely — fingers pointing in another direction — three Northern California Democrats with large environmentalist constituencies favored sending the water to the fish in Northern California. They were Reps. Jared Huffman, Mike Thompson and George Miller.

In rendering his decision to release water from Trinity Lake for the fish, Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill warned of the downstream impacts this could have on farmers in the Central Valley.  But he had to render a decision to uphold an inflexible law, the Endangered Species Act, which preempts state water laws. Put another way, in this case the judge’s fingers were tied because of the ESA.


So, amid all the finger-pointing, where did the farm water go? We’re in the early stages of the drought. But so far some conclusions can be drawn.

About 1,268,000 acre-feet of water combined from Lake Trinity and the San Joaquin Reservoir was spilled for fish restoration in 2012-13, resulting in a massive draw down of storage water that flowed to the ocean instead of being conserved and returned to the natural terrestrial water cycle.

Therein lies a major reason for a shortage of stored water for agriculture going in to a third consecutive year of a dry spell.

Once the reservoirs were drawn down, there could be no relief when the drought landed on Central Valley farms like a plague of Oklahoma Dust Bowl locusts.

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