As California drought worsens, Biden administration cuts water supply, farmers struggle to compensate

The effects of the worsening drought in California hit farmers in the Central Valley earlier this week when federal officials ad they did not have enough water to supply many of their agricultural customers. Urban users south of San Francisco in Santa Clara County have seen their normal water deliveries cut in half.

California ships water to cities and farms through a combination of state and federal programs that oversee a complex network of hundreds of miles of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts statewide.

Farmers in the state’s richest agricultural valley have long relied on water from the United States Bureau of Reclamation’s massive Central Valley Project (CVP) for irrigation, especially in the larger southern portion. dry valley. The CVP stretches approximately 400 miles from the Trinity Dam, approximately 200 miles south of the Oregon border, to Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The office manages 9 million acre-feet of water – imagine about 9 million football fields covered with one foot of water – most of which is used to irrigate about a third of the state’s farmland.

Officials in the Bureau of Reclamation determine water allocations based on estimates of how much is available for deliveries, which in turn depends on current reservoir levels, as well as precipitation and the Sierra Nevada snowpack that replenishes them. rivers in melt water. The snowpack accounts for almost a third of the state’s water supply.

Federal officials had set the initial water allocations in February, when they noted that a few heavy rains failed to make up for two consecutive extremely dry winters. To make matters worse, the snowpack had reached just over 50 percent of the seasonal average. At that time, farmers were assigned 5 percent of their water supply under contract. In March, the office froze deliveries to farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta “until further notice,” citing the lingering drought.

Now the office has reduced allocations for farmers in the southern and northern delta to zero. The latest cuts come as the state grapples with the driest year in more than four decades for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Basin, the state’s water supply hub.

“The drought is turning out to be even more severe than people predicted a month or two ago because this spring was really dry,” said Ellen Hanak, vice president and director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. .

“Usually you get a little help with some late spring storms, and we didn’t,” Hanak said. “Plus, it was dry and hot, so the snowpack kind of disappeared.”

Some agricultural contractors, in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, are not affected by the office cuts because they already had water rights before the federal government built the CVP in the 1930s.

“In order for the CVP to build the infrastructure and develop the projects, it made special arrangements with the people who had pre-existing water rights,” Hanak said.

The groups that hold the largest water rights still have 75% of their deliveries under contract, she said.

Yet “agriculture is being hit very hard,” Hanak said. “Delivery levels are roughly lower than they were at the height of the last drought.”

The Westlands Water District, which saw its water supplies cut to zero three years after the historic drought of 2012-2016, now faces the same situation.

The district has long been at the center of water battles between farmers and environmentalists, with conservative politicians often siding with farmers. President Donald Trump echoed a long-standing trope between fish and farmers last year, when he told Fox News California was going to have to ration water. “You know why?” he said. “Because they send millions of gallons of water to the sea, to the Pacific, because they want to take care of some small and tiny fish.” The state is required to reserve water flows to protect threatened and endangered fish species.

Farm losses from the historic 2012-2016 drought topped $ 3.8 billion in the state, and tens of thousands of jobs were lost in the San Joaquin Valley because farmers failed of water, said Tom Birmingham, Managing Director of Westlands Water. District.

Since the CVP is the district’s main water source, this means that farmers will fallow land used to grow annual crops and pull up some of their permanent crops, he said.

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Birmingham said the cuts would again have a significant economic effect on farmers in the district, which produces crops worth around $ 2 billion a year at the southwest end of the valley.

But they will have an even bigger effect on surrounding, predominantly Latin American communities, he said, where unemployment rates soared in the last drought. “And coming in addition to Covid-19, it has devastating socio-economic effects on these communities,” Birmingham said.

There are a variety of tactics growers can use, some of them increasingly disastrous, to compensate for the change in water allocations, said Danielle Veenstra, third generation almond farmer and communications manager on sustainability for the California Almond Board.

Farmers who are not faced with allocations from the CVP can rely on local water districts, pump a well installed as a reserve, or purchase excess water from other districts. They will pay more for supplies purchased from the water market, she said, “because there is obviously a high demand right now.

Earlier this month, Governor Gavin Newsom has placed 41 of the state’s 58 counties in drought emergency and proposed allocating more than $ 5 billion for drought relief and resilience. Newsom’s proposal includes $ 1.3 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, “with a focus on small, disadvantaged communities,” and $ 463 million for wildlife and wastewater projects. ecosystems.

Recognizing that not everyone is equally affected by drought or by water policies is a critical step in addressing disparities, policy experts say.

When it comes to drought, not all water users are treated the same, said Iris Stewart-Frey, associate professor of environmental studies and science at the University of Santa Clara. His recent research showed that wealthier users in San Francisco Bay saw no water restrictions during the 2012-2016 drought, while poorer users in the Central Valley and South Bay experienced reductions of 30 % and environmental flows have been reduced by up to 90%. “Those who have the fewest water rights and are the least rich are excluded first,” she said.

The reality of facing another exceptional drought calls for an all-terrain approach, said Stewart-Frey. “We are going to have to take serious action on all fronts.”

Santa Clara neighborhood water managers encouraged homeowners to replace their lawns with water-efficient landscaping and reduce water use by 25 percent. It’s a good idea, said Stewart-Frey, but it doesn’t distinguish between those who already conserve and those who waste water. “There should be upper limits for non-essential water uses.”

Stewart-Frey said she looks forward to the day when state water managers consider all of the water users that make California the Golden State.

“We want to emerge from a drought still having a thriving economy, not losing all the treasures we have in our environment and benefiting everyone in the state,” she said. “Reducing uses that are not essential will be essential.”

As severe droughts become more common, Stewart-Frey said, there will be plenty of unpopular choices. “That’s why I think it’s really important to make people understand how dire the situation is and to involve them.”

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