California policy has shifted water away from Ag and urban uses

Barry Bedwell, right, of the California Fresh Fruit Association, answers questions about California’s need for additional storage water during the Almond Conference. Seated next to him is David Orth, GM of the Kings River Conservation District.

How will changing water policy impact almond industry?

2014 will be new water benchmark in California Water availability issues did not happen overnight Half of California's available water now goes to environmental-only uses

All jokes about water and whiskey notwithstanding, one got decidedly more expensive for California growers in 2014.

Recognizing that a crisis is typically when lawmakers and policy officials react, some in agriculture could see the writing on the dusty wall well ahead of a legislative session that closed with it a fundamental change to water policy in California.

David Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District, said his board of directors could see the writing on the wall early in the year and suggested that his group get together with those in the water industry and the legislature “and try to shape these discussions.”

Orth said all the signs were there that legislative action would be taken to address groundwater management.

“As a result, I spent the better part of 2014 in Sacramento working on policy documents, then on the legislation,” Orth said.

Late in the year California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., signed an historic package of bills that, for the first time in California, regulates groundwater. With that bit of work completed Orth says his efforts will shift towards working with the various state agencies to craft careful policy based on the new law that addresses some long-held principles in California, including property rights.

“We must recognize that there are certain property rights relative to the use of ground water and surface water that have to be respected,” Orth continued.

Key to this process is keeping groundwater management local rather than something handled at the state level.

Orth was part of a quartet of speakers at the Almond Conference on the subject of water policy, where it’s been, how it got to where it is today, and some possible outcomes and predictions. Those speakers included State Water Board Member DeeDee D’Adamo, California Water Foundation Executive Director Lester Snow and California Fresh Fruit Association President Barry Bedwell.

Challenges and opportunities

Bedwell told those gathered for the 42nd annual Almond Conference that their industry not only has a target on its back over its need for a permanent water source; it has a remarkable opportunity to promote the products produced by almonds and the value-added nature of the industry in a way that illustrates the importance of sustainable irrigation supplies.

Critical to the continued success of the almond industry is water, which Bedwell says continues to be in short supply in California for a host of reasons.

According to Bedwell, California has seen a significant reduction in available water for Ag and urban uses as 50 percent of the state’s allocated water supply is now earmarked solely for environmental purposes.

Using the 1977 drought as a benchmark, Bedwell says a multitude of government regulatory and policy decisions have placed a host of “priority environmental uses” ahead of historic human needs and have reduced the average water supply for the Central Valley Project’s contractors south of the Delta from 90 percent reliability to 40 percent reliability.

This did not happen overnight. While the process saw its genesis with a 1978 decision by the California Water Resources Control Board, it gained traction in the 1990s with Endangered Species Act rulings on winter run salmon, biological opinions on the Delta Smelt, and passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

The net effect of this was less water for California agriculture to grow crops.

Bedwell highlighted efforts under way in Congress to begin a possible course correction that he suggests will take time, but believes can happen. He pointed towards conversations between Senate and House representatives that have typically been antagonistic towards each other to conversations aimed at finding agreement.

“We are going to have to work with those who are legitimately concerned about environmental protections but understand the need to maintain a domestic food supply,” Bedwell told conference attendees.

Doing so will require an educational process that has begun.

As the Almond Conference was taking place in downtown Sacramento copious amounts of rain and snow were falling on a parched state.

Because of this, Bedwell is concerned that some may be losing sight of the need for additional surface storage through projects like Sites Reservoir and the dam at Temperance Flat.

The California Water Foundation’s Lester Snow had a succinct question related to storage.

What if?

“Just think if we didn’t have that storage; what would the economic impact of the drought in California have been then? This illustrates just how important storage is,” Snow said.

While water storage was one component of the recently-passed water bond measure in Snow suggests the heavy lifting has yet to begin.

“We passed the water bond: that’s the easy part,” said Snow. “The hard part is effectively implementing the bond where we pay for waste water recycling, conservation and storage projects.”

Snow fears discussions that could “rob oxygen” from necessary surface water discussions will be the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which he says “will be ripe to take action in pursuing permits to fix the Delta,” which may or may not include California Gov. Edmund Brown’s controversial plan to build tunnels under the Delta to convey water from the north to the south.

“Pay attention to all of this,” Snow said. “Even if it’s not one of your issues it’s going to take up a lot of people’s time and energy.”

All four speakers seemed to agree: surface storage must not be lost from policy discussions and from the minds of lawmakers and voters going forth.

“Our reservoirs are currently in very bad condition,” Snow said. “If those don’t refill there will be a tremendous impact on agriculture in California.”

For Bedwell, impacts of that are appearing as reduced farm acreages and the increased fallowing of agricultural land is becoming commonplace.

“Logically, I cannot see a path that maintains the current level of production for California agriculture that we currently have,” Bedwell said. “We’re going to have to balance some things, and this is not going to be easy.”

To do this Bedwell talks up the idea of conjunctive use, its definitions and why surface and sub-surface water supplies are intrinsically connected.

“When you hear us talk about conjunctive use and we talk about the need for above-ground storage to be used in conjunction with groundwater management so that we can sustainably manage these supplies, it is important to talk about above-ground storage,” Bedwell said.

Orth referenced projects under way now in the Kings River Conservation District (KRCD) that seeks to employ this idea by utilizing flood flows to recharge groundwater basins.

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One such idea of KRCD is to capture storm runoff from the Kings River and allow it to flood farmland typically used for annual crops that growers agree to use for recharge purposes. Projects like this are voluntary and will require work on conveyance systems to put the water where it can best be used for recharge, Orth says.

There is some hope that future federal legislative fixes can be achieved through a developing relationship between California Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein has indicated to California agriculture that she would reintroduce legislation in the next Congress that could address short-term flexibility in moving water through California’s system, something Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, attempted in a last-minute move late in the previous legislative session in spite of opposition by California’s other US Senator, Barbara Boxer.

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