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Farmers review impact of federal, state water actions

Issue Date: February 26, 2020
By Christine Souza

After a week that saw President Donald Trump visit Bakersfield to pledge more water for Central Valley farmers and Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration respond with a lawsuit, farmers and water agencies looked for ways to continue work on voluntary agreements intended to ease California's water disputes.

Trump announced his administration had finalized new federal rules to guide operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. The lawsuit filed by the state the next day asserts that new biological opinions prepared by federal agencies lack safeguards for protected species and their habitat.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson said better coordination and improved flexibility of federal and state water project operations would benefit people throughout California.

"Federal and state officials need to be pulling in the same direction to assure the most efficient use of California water for fish and people," Johansson said.

He said the federal agencies had taken "a holistic look at the California water system and offered an alternative that promises to improve the health of the environment without devastating people whose communities and livelihoods depend on reliable water supplies."

Johansson said no one benefits from the "merry-go-round of endless litigation," adding that, under this scenario, "Fisheries continue to suffer. Productive farmland goes unused. It's not a sustainable path for anyone. Farm Bureau will continue to advocate for practical, reasonable, cooperative ways to address California's water supply needs."

CFBF Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said the legal challenge by the state "throws the delta into complete uncertainty," including the effort to establish voluntary flow agreements from tributaries to benefit fish in the delta.

"The voluntary agreements are a much better path," Scheuring said. "It would be better to agree on these things in a collaborative way and seek out a possible win-win."

Newsom said he still supports "enforceable voluntary agreements" that would serve as an alternative to a state-mandated, flows-only approach that brought opposition and lawsuits from water agencies and water users. Earlier this month, the Newsom administration released a framework for voluntary agreements that outlined a 15-year program to help recover fish populations, create new and restored habitat, and generate $5.2 billion for environmental improvements and science.

Northern California Water Association President David Guy said he believes the new federal biological opinions by the Trump administration and the Newsom administration's voluntary agreement framework remain good starting points for forging a solution for California water.

"We have a federal piece that we think is really good and we have a state piece that we think is really good, so now it's like, 'Come on folks, let's put the pieces together in a way that can work for both the federal and the state agencies,'" Guy said.

"It's really hard to predict right now where this all leads," he said. "I think at some level, people are going to want to get back to the table and work this stuff out, rather than litigate."

Scheuring said CFBF hopes the Newsom administration "will pull back from a confrontational path over the biological opinions and instead find a way to conduct delta operations in a coordinated manner that is good for the environment and good for service areas of the projects, which encompass millions of acres of farmland and tens of millions of Californians served."

During President Trump's appearance in Bakersfield, he invited three farmers, including Kern County almond farmer Jenny Holtermann, to address the crowd about the importance of water to the region (see Comment).

"Because of the uncertainty of water deliveries," Holtermann said, "I'm worried that we may not have a family farm to pass down to my children, or my niece or nephew."

Noting that orchards can't be fallowed in years with less water, she added, "Without a reliable water supply, hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland could be taken out of production in California's Central Valley. Families like mine could be forced to abandon orchards or sell a family farm."

During the president's visit to the valley, he also signed a memo that directs the Interior Department to develop more water storage and increase water infrastructure. The president added that his administration is making efforts to finish the review process for upgrades to the Friant-Kern Canal in less than one year.

"One of the hardest things in California water policy is getting things moving so, to the extent that the presidential memorandum provides some political will to move water storage projects forward, that is a good thing," Scheuring said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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