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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  1. jim jones
    jim jones 20 February, 2014, 10:05

    Wayne Lusvardi has it backwards. The diversions are FROM the rivers TO the farms not the other way around as anyone with half a brain and not totally taken in by the millionaire and billionaire (think Hollywood producer Steve Resnick who owns 46000 acres of Westlands) welfare farmer propagandists can see. The San Joaquin once supported a run of 100,000 salmon annually. They evolved to come up the river during fall, winter and spring, but dams cut off their passage and diversions dried the river essentially year round. Further, return flows from fields are laden with salts and toxic substances like selenium.

    As for the Trinity, until lawsuits forced the Bureau of Rec to reduce (not end) diversions over a mountain pass into the Sacramento River, then flowing hundreds of miles into San Joaquin Valley farms, the river’s previously abundant salmon and steelhead fishery essentially had been destroyed. After Trinity and Lewiston dams were built, the number of steelhead returning to the hatchery to replace the hundreds of miles cut off by the dams went as low as a total of 12 fish.

    As for those horrible environmentalists (I can literally see Lusvardi spit the word out as if it were a mouthful of potato salad left out in a hot sun)[…]. Thousands of fishermen and hundreds of businesses rely on on healthy salmon and steelhead runs. Unlike the welfare farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, they don’t get millions of dollars in subsidies annually for crops like cotton, or zero interest loans.

    But Lusvardi need not worry too much. His [misstatements and those] of others have have lots of money and political power behind them. Also,the sympathy of many who care about the poor farm workers being used as pawns by the farm owners who exploit and despise them.


    [Editor’s note: Some vituperation was removed from this post, but all the main points remain.]

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  2. jeanmarei missale
    jeanmarei missale 11 April, 2014, 11:30

    This all sounds very familiar to what they are doing to cattle ranchers in Nevada.forbidding them to let their cattle graze on lands they have grazed on more than a 100 years.all this they say because of a tortoise.the govt has a green agenda,about climate change.they say the cattle give off methane gas,and it’s bad for environment.the govt with there agenda are trying to put cattle ranchers out of business.now this morning I hear that IBAMACARE they want Americans to be thinner,and that they want them to eat plant based diet.and the only way to make people healthier is to take supply away.doc in other words they are going to force the people.also will send text messages to tell people they are too far.can’t make this up.also hidden in farm bill the it’s is taking peoples income tax checks for debt their parents owe. My email is [email protected]

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  3. sandra
    sandra 19 April, 2014, 04:29

    Your statement lacks a few facts. Bundy, the rancher you are really talking about stopped paying his lease payments for 20 years. In 1998 Clark County , NV bought those grazing leases and asked the BLM to remove all cattle from it. The remaining ranchers continue to pay their leases, and some were paid for their water rights, removed their cattle and they then could lease a different plot of grazing land. Bundy is a FREELOADER.His family has their ranch in a trust, but BLM land is not part of that. His family has not been farming for 100 years. He was born in AZ his father was born in AZ and his Grandfather is from IL. His Greatgrand mothers family owned the land he is on and his Father came to ranch there in 1954. The land he lives on is not even in his name, but in his father’s who passed on the trust. the Clark County Assessor said his name is not on any of the rolls for attempting to pay Clark Co for grazing rights, as he claimed. As for the ACA, there is nothing in about making you become a vegetarian, go read for yourself and quit repeating garbage you heard. And yes the bill to collect back taxes owed by your parents is in the 2008 farm bill, now who was President in 2008? His name began with a B not an O.

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