California water crisis battle continues to erupt on many fronts

Sometimes it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. California’s current water crisis has growers and water agencies scrambling to find short-term solutions for 2009, when it is the larger picture that needs attention.

“Right now I’m fighting the battle on three fronts,” Jim Beck, Kern County Water Agency’s general manager, told Central Coast Cotton Conference attendees. “I’ve got to survive 2009.”

That’s the first front. Just getting through this year is imperative for Beck and growers around the state. However, it’s the mid-term and long-term strategies that will ultimately define California’s agricultural future. KCWA serves agricultural water needs as well as municipal water needs.

“We provide about a third of the drinking water for the Bakersfield area,” Beck said. “Our strategy in 2009 is to implement a drought emergency program. We’ll purchase water where we can and extract water from our banking programs. But if we get through 2009 only to die in 2010, I’m not sure that does any good.”

The immediate situation is dire. “We’re starting the third year of a really dry cycle,” he said. “In 2006, the allocation for the State Water Project was 65 percent of our contract. Last year it was 35 percent. This year the initial allocation for the State Water Project is 15 percent. It’s been a really dry December and January. It’s questionable whether that will stay at 15 percent.”

Beck and others in the water businesss are trying to push ideas through legislative channels that will make a difference for agriculture for the mid- and long-term. In addition to drought, environmentalism has complicated that effort immensely.

The conveyance systems started in the 1920s to transport water from the north to the south are no longer adequate to support California’s burgeoning population. Additionally, the entire system and how to fix it is coming under increasing fire from environmentalists.

“In the past 15 years, especially the past two years, hydrology has taken a back seat to environmental issues,” Beck said. “Regulatory restrictions have really crippled the ability of those projects to provide any significant reliability to water users who contracted those rights and who are paying the bill for those rights.”

And then there’s the little fish which has caused a tsunami throughout the state’s water conveyence system. “Due to the Delta smelt we lost about 30 percent of the water supply we would have seen last year,” Beck said. “We expect the regulations that were initiated last year to protect this fish species will continue to play a significant role in limiting the water supply.”

Growers have already stepped up to the plate and implemented water saving measures, according to Beck. “They are the first to take action in a water crisis,” he said.

In spite of aggressive local water saving measures, regulatory action has literally stemmed the flow of water and possible solutions to a trickle. “Right now there are a number of regulatory actions in place that have really limited us,” Beck said. “The judge’s decision has added additional restraints on how we move water through the Delta and through the two large pumping plants from our reservoirs to the rest of the state. We’ve got to learn the new rules of the game. The windows for operating those two large facilities have dramatically been reduced, so our ability to get water through the Delta that we’ve stored has really been impacted. We believe a lot of the science that went into promulgation of those rules was either inaccurate or insufficient to justify the decision the judge made.”

Bringing more reasonable science into the debate is one of they keys, according to Beck. It’s a matter of figuring out how to best protect fish species while also alleviating the water shortage for growers, as well as consumers.

“We’re looking at some short-term measures to create new habitat for fish in the Delta,” Beck said. “It would modify Delta channels that would allow a little bit more pumping to occur without impacting fish, particularly the smelt species.”

In the long-term, KCWA has been promoting the construction of a peripheral canal. That has an estimated construction period of at least 10 to 15 years if it ever gets started.

“The peripheral canal is very controversial idea,” Beck concedes. “But all the leading fish agencies believe this is the best way to deal with impacts on fish species in the Delta.”

The plan would move the intake for the pumping facilities to an area north of the Delta and allow water to be moved around the Delta to the pumping facilities instead of through the Delta, thereby protecting endangered fish species. Even that plan has met with criticism.

“Most of the more aggressive environmental attacks have said that will not provide the needed fix to the Delta habitat,” Beck said. “I would argue with that.”

Another obstacle to forging ahead with a plan for the peripheral canal is sheer emotion. Many of the stakeholders in the northern part of the state believe that the southern part of the state is intent on sucking water out of the Delta that rightfully belongs to them. That’s a misconception, according to Beck.

“The state and federal water projects don’t pump water from the Delta, they transport water through the Delta,” Beck said. “Those two projects invested in a lot of facilities that would allow movement of water through the Delta as a normal conveyance system.”

One of the keys to getting the peripheral canal built is educating all the stakeholders involved, according to Beck. It’s not just a matter of north vs. south or the public vs. agriculture. Currently, a homeowner can turn on a faucet and water flows dependably and fairly inexpensively.

“We’ve got to continue to educate the public on the magnitude of what water prices could be for everyone involved,” Beck said. “When the judge shut off the pumps last summer, it was costing our growers $1 million dollars a day every day. They had to get alternative water supplies to meet their demand. It’s not just the growers. We need to get metropolitan areas to realize they have a stake in this as well.”

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