Three California agricultural water leaders discuss drought and water at the Western Plant Health Association annual meeting ndash from left ndash rice grower John Garner board member Northern California Water Association Ron Jacobsma general manager Friant Water Authority and Jason Peltier chief deputy general manager Westlands Water District

Three California agricultural water leaders discuss drought and water at the Western Plant Health Association annual meeting – from left – rice grower John Garner, board member, Northern California Water Association; Ron Jacobsma, general manager, Friant Water Authority; and Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager, Westlands Water District.

California farm water leaders talk local drought impacts

Three California agricultural water leaders describe the California drought, and how the lack of moisture from the sky and regulator intervention on the environment have placed farmers in financially perilous situations.

All California farmers and water districts want for Christmas this year is a slow, rainy winter – with perhaps a timely rain tucked in the stocking hanging from the fireplace.

While the winter rain scenario will be determined in the weeks and months ahead, three California agricultural water leaders have plenty to say about the California drought, and how the lack of moisture from the sky and regulator intervention on the environment have placed farmers in financially perilous situations.

During the 2014 Western Plant Health Association annual meeting held this fall in Palm Desert, Calif., the water leaders took center stage for a two-and-a-half hour water discussion chocked full of drought facts and placing some blame at government regulators.

The water leaders included: Jason Peltier, the Westlands Water District’s chief deputy general manager; Ron Jacobsma, Friant Water Authority general manager; and John Garner, a Northern California Water Association board member and Colusa County rice grower.

Hit hard by the three-year-old drought is farm land in the Westlands Water District (WWD) which provides water to about 600,000 irrigated acres on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley in western Fresno County.

The WWD has a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for about one million acre feet of surface water annually. Surface water deliveries to farmers this year were zero percent.

“About half of the (farm) land in our district is out of production this year,” said Jason Peltier of Westland’s. “Farmers are employing coping strategies to deal with the zero allocation, but those who rely on a healthy farm production sector like farmworkers, schools, social service agencies, and small businesses have few, if any, viable coping strategies.”

Fish first, people second

Peltier places blame for the drought not only on the lack of liquid manna (rain and snow), but on regulatory interpretations and actions which have shifted water previously used for food and fiber production to the state’s ecosystem amid questionable interpretations of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Peltier says the WWD has dealt with water shortages for about two decades largely based on fundamental changes in California water management; basically shifting farm water to fish.

“These changes are the result of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other environmental laws which have reallocated water from human interests to the environment,” Peltier said.

In the case of Westlands, average surface water liability has dropped like a boat anchor - down from about 90 percent to 40 percent over 20 years.

“It’s all in the name of giving water to the endangered fish,” the Westland’s leader said.

Some believe water reallocations are needed to improve California’s ecosystem and help protect ESA ‘listed’ fish.

“There is no evidence that over 20 years of water reallocation that the fish and the ecosystem are better off,” Peltier said.

“Some regulators have an agenda to take water from farmers and dedicate it to the environment in hopes it will do some good,” Peltier stated. “At the same time, they have largely ignored other potential causes including pollution, overfishing, and the loss of habitat which are likely important stressors to the environment.”

While California farmers and ranchers have suffered from the current drought, Peltier says there is one possible silver lining. The general public has learned from the news media about the potential link between regulators and reduced water supplies.

“I do not support eliminating the ESA, but we need to change how it is implemented,” Peltier said. “We need to change the mindset in the ESA regulator community.”

He added, “It is in our interest to have healthy fisheries but government biologists don’t know how to get that done.”

Friant leader speaks

On the east side of California’s San Joaquin Valley covering 1.2 million acres, about 15,000 small family farms receive surface water through the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project. The Friant Water Authority (FWA) represents 21 of the 31 Friant Division water contractors.

On average, the Friant Division delivers about 1.2 million acre feet of surface water, says the FWA’s Ron Jacobsma.

Friant was designed to accommodate conjunctive use. In wetter years, water is stored underground after irrigation demands have been met. In drier years, the underground supply helps augment limited surface water deliveries.

“With Friant water supplies, farmers were able to diversify and recharge the groundwater,” said Jacobsma.

For about 40 years, the water plan worked resulting in groundwater equilibrium which led to the expansion of permanent crop plantings in the Central California area and forage crop production for dairy feed.

With the current historic drought and related issues, Friant – like Westlands – had a zero percent surface water allocation this year.

“A number of our districts have little to no groundwater so it’s a serious concern,” Jacobsma told the WPHA crowd. “This has been almost a shock to many of our landowners. Friant has never had a zero water supply in its history prior to this year.”

As a result, “Our folks are very much engaged in Delta-related regulatory and legal issues since this is a detrimental situation throughout the Central Valley.”

Productive land

The most productive farm land in the world is in the Central Valley, touts the Friant general manager. While there are possibly just four Mediterranean type climate areas in the world, Jacobsma says the Central Valley is the largest and most productive.

Witnessing the reality of the water reductions in the valley is a hard pill to swallow.

Jacobson explained, “To allow this type of resource to be diminished or wasted is really unconscionable.”

Heavily dependent on Friant water is the state’s main citrus-growing area, including Tulare County. With almost no water available for citrus, some growers scrambled for liquid gold – spending up to $2,000 per acre foot to protect their long-term grove investments.

“Unless we get a significant water year in 2015, we could see water deprivation impact more than 50,000 acres of citrus.”

The rice debate

Rice grower and water leader John Garner shared a Northern California perspective on the drought; noting the region has a long history of water development since the majority of the state’s water supply (rain and snow) falls in the state’s northern reaches while about two-thirds of California water use is in the state’s southern quadrant.

Due to water diversions this year from the Sacramento Valley to the south, Garner estimates that rice growers fallowed about 25-35 percent of the rice acreage this year. In a typical year, about 500,000 acres of rice are grown in the valley.

Aside from rice as an important crop for growers, Garner says rice has value in feeding people across the nation and the world.

In addition to the water shortfall, valley rice farms are sometimes viewed as larger water users compared to some other crops. Urbanites ask why rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley.

Part of this is based on rice fields are flooded during the growing season, and then again in the fall to decompose rice straw, and then drained in the spring. Water decomposition is viewed by some as a better environmental option than straw burning in the past.

In addition, Garner says flooded rice fields are an excellent habitat and food source during the winter months as a resting spot and feeding ground for waterfowl flying along the Pacific Flyway.

He said, “It’s a win-win” for everyone – farmers, urban dwellers, and waterfowl. Rice land creates an artificial wetland that creates habitat for many endangered species, including the giant garter snake and some shorebirds.

Ag's waterfowl support

Garner shared this factoid, “In the last 15 years, rice farming has helped increase the waterfowl population in the Sacramento Valley from about four million birds to about 15 million birds during the winter.”

He added that flooded fields also increase groundwater recharge which is a “Godsend” in the area. Without surface water, recharge does not occur.

Research has also helped reduce water use through improved varieties. A rice plant in the 1950’s stood six feet tall (72 inches). Today’s rice varieties stand half as tall - 32 inches – and require less water.

Garner says laser leveling fields has also reduced the water needs of rice plants.

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