Delta issues hold key to future water supply reliability
Three key developments involving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in the past week set environmental parameters for protecting delta species and laid the foundation for addressing the region's environmental problems and the future reliability of the state's water supply.
Experts say drought conditions, court decisions and a collapsing ecosystem have turned up the heat on finding solutions to these problems, elevating the importance of solid planning and prompt action.
A Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force forwarded its final recommendations last week to state agency heads, who in turn sent them on to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. An implementation plan comes in January.
A few days later, a completed draft conservation strategy for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan was presented to stakeholders, tentatively identifying a plan for water conveyance through and around the delta.
Added to that, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delivered its biological opinion on the effect of pumping water from the delta. The opinion found that operation of the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project jeopardizes the continued existence of a protected fish, the delta smelt, and adversely modifies its critical habitat.
The opinion outlines what the FWS calls "reasonable and prudent alternatives" intended to protect each life stage and critical habitat of the delta smelt.
For the State Water Project, deliveries throughout California could be permanently reduced by up to 50 percent under the biological opinion. Water deliveries to cities, farms and businesses throughout much of the state will be reduced about 20 percent to 30 percent on average, but cuts could be even greater under certain hydrologic conditions, analysts said.
"Recent headlines about the interruption of export water pumping operations in the delta to protect fish species underscore for all Californians what farmers and ranchers have been acutely aware of for years—the water supply for much of the state is in jeopardy," said Chris Scheuring, managing counsel of the California Farm Bureau Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division. "Without workable solutions for a reliable water supply, agriculture and the entire state economy are in peril."
He said Farm Bureau has been actively engaged in efforts to find solutions, through participation in public policy forums, the legal system, agency hearings or deliberations of the Legislature.
"The problems, however, have grown increasingly complex and expensive to resolve," Scheuring said. "But, after several years of intensive effort, some of the recommendations aimed at restoring the delta's vitality are being finalized and with them come hope of more surface water storage, infrastructure improvements and recovery of delta fisheries."
The Delta Vision recommendations offer a 50- to 100-year "blueprint" for the region's future. It attempts to integrate the needs of agriculture, transportation, water conveyance, flood control, recreation, tourism and the environment into a cohesive plan. CFBF has actively participated on a stakeholder committee to represent the interests of farmers and ranchers in a healthy delta environment.
Farm Bureau also has been active in formulating action plans in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which is intended to dovetail with the Delta Vision framework.
Near-term actions recommended in the BDCP focus on preparing for disasters in or around the delta, protecting its ecosystem and water supply system from urban encroachment, and starting work soon on short-term improvements to both the ecosystem and the water supply system.
On the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, improvements in water reliability cannot come soon enough. Already, thousands of acres of farmland have been fallowed and farmers are bracing for the some of the lowest water deliveries from the federal and state projects in history.
"We've had to lay off about 65 percent of our farm work force and we've quit growing most of our vegetables to provide enough water for our permanent crops, which are about 25 percent of our farm," said John Harris, who owns Harris Farms near Coalinga. "All of our irrigation systems are drip and we employ every technology available to conserve water. We've just renovated our water wells, but still we're drastically short of water."
As to the mood of Californians to address the state's water supply crisis, Harris said he thinks people realize that California can't continue to do little while the state's population greatly increases.
"Unfortunately, we have very little we can point to that shows we are truly doing anything," Harris said. "A lot of talk, little action. Maybe when people turn on the shower and nothing comes out, that will be the final wake-up call, but agriculture will have taken devastating losses by the time that happens."
Colusa County rice grower Don Bransford, who is a director of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, said he's optimistic that a consensus is forming on the problems facing the delta and the state's water supply.
"I'm concerned about the dollars it's going to cost to address these needs, but there's finally a broad consensus on solving these problems," he said.
"Unfortunately, right now you've got a judge in charge of the delta," he added. "There's a new lawsuit every day and then you add all these plans for moving forward. The problem is these are not short-term solutions. It's going to take time to put some of these plans in place."
He said with the courts and government agencies driving short-term solutions, it's creating havoc for agriculture.
"Unfortunately with all these task forces, you're looking at solutions that are seven to 10 years out," Bransford said. "We need something now that will help folks impacted by the crisis in the delta. The farmers on the west side can't wait 10 years for solutions. They need immediate relief and it seems to be getting worse by the day," he said.
In his own operation, Bransford said he's considering fallowing ground to complete some land releveling. There's enormous pressure on farmers in the north state to fallow ground and sell water to farmers in the south, he said. The delta pumps and the environmental requirements, however, will continue to limit the amount of water that can be sent south of the delta to those who need it.
Harris, who also owns a beef production business that relies on adequate water supplies said, "We've studied the water supply problems to death. Arguably, the newly released recommendations and studies move us closer to solutions, but it's frustrating that it has taken so long and produced so few tangible results or water."
Background to water issues facing California farmers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta can be found online at www.cfbf.com.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion on the delta smelt is available online at www.fws.gov/sacramento.
Online information about Delta Vison is available at www.deltavision.ca.gov.
The draft recommendations from the Bay Delta Conservation Plan are available at resources.ca.gov/bdcp.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.