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Monday, February 17, 2014

CA bill seeks to preserve water for agriculture

by Mark Mendiola - WLJ Correspondent

—Water woes hurt ag, jobs, power production in the Golden State

The California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) is praising legislation moving through Congress that would help the Golden State preserve dwindling water supplies by boosting storage as it copes with an extreme drought that threatens food production, economic output, power generation and thousands of jobs.

The legislation takes on more urgency as the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports water supplies at nearly every gauge in California and Nevada were less than half of average seasonal norms as of Feb. 5, sharply cutting California’s hydroelectric generating capacity.

Water supplies have not improved much since California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17, despite a storm system moving through northern California the weekend of Feb. 8 that showered the region with several inches of rain.

The driest December on record left 60 percent of California classified as in extreme drought, the second worst category in the U.S. drought monitor index. The California Department of Water Resources reports snow pack in the northern Sierra Nevada range is about 20 percent of normal for the hydrological year that runs from October, 2013 through September, 2014.

Nearly 14 percent of U.S. hydroelectric generating capacity is concentrated in California. Hydro generation during the past two summers was well below levels attained in the summers of 2010 and 2011.

California will be forced to import more power from neighboring regions and increase output from coal-fired sources. Much imported power has come from hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest, which also is suffering a water deficit.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wegner praised California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Feb. 11 introduction of legislation in the U.S. Senate that will help increase the availability of water for farmers and other water users, plus provide immediate drought relief for livestock ranchers.

“Senator Feinstein’s legislation addresses a drought that could reach historic proportions,” Wenger said. “Drought hits farm ers and ranchers first and hardest, so we support a bill that addresses immediate needs of those facing critical water shortages.”

Wenger noted the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill the previous week authored by California Central Valley congressional members led by Rep. David Valadao addressing critical water issues made more acute by the drought.

“We hope the House and Senate can work together to craft a bipartisan solution that will both help with immediate water challenges and address the long-term need for additional water storage,” he said. “If we don’t add above-ground storage, we will lose the ability to replenish storage in our underground aquifers.”

The CFBF’s membership stands at about 78,000 members statewide. CFBF spokesman Dave Kranz said his organization is pleased that Congress has taken notice of California’s drought crisis and is trying to come up with solutions to address both short- and longterm problems.

“We know that in the long term we are going to need additional water storage to produce food,” Kranz told the Western Livestock Journal. “We think we have suffered as a state. In California, we have not done enough the last 20-25 years to alleviate it.”

Californians have made significant progress conserving water and reducing their use. Farming and ranching operations also are much more efficient in their use of water, producing twice as much in crop production tonnage with the same amount of water, Kranz said. “It’s a more efficient crop per drop” of water.

Four to six weeks remain in California’s traditional rainy season. Typically, by the end of March, officials will know how much water will be available for state use. Recent storms obviously helped, but “you don’t make up for 13 months of dry weather in one weekend,” he said.

Sensors at the first of February showed California’s snow pack at only 12 percent of average, the lowest percentage ever detected that time of year. Rain the weekend of Feb. 8 boosted that to 30 percent. It was the first time since December, 2012 that more than an inch of rain was recorded.

“We need a lot more of those storms to get out of the hole we’re in,” Kranz said. “We’re still expecting severe water cutbacks in terms of California unless we get lots of snow and rain the next three to four weeks, but there’s nothing on the horizon. We’re still way behind.

We’re likely to stay way behind.”

In a typical year, eight million acres of agricultural land is irrigated in California. Given extremely dry conditions, as many as 500,000 acres of land will be left unplanted this year.

The Federal Central Valley Water Project is expected to announce later this month that zero water will be allocated to agricultural contractors. On Friday, Jan. 31, the State Water Project also announced for the first time in its 54-year history it will not be able to provide water due to the drought.

A sharp reduction in the production of tomatoes, onions, garlic, cotton, melons and other crops is expected. “More than likely they will be saving whatever water they have to keep trees, permanent crops and vines alive,” Kranz said of ag producers.

The Farm Bureau spokesman said he expects the western San Joaquin Valley, California’s primary food production zone, to be especially hard hit by the steep water curtailments.

“We expect, given the current circumstances, that thousands or tens of thousands of jobs will be affected.

It will ripple through equipment dealers, parts suppliers, trucking companies and marketing companies,” Kranz said. “Jobs will begin to suffer, as well.”

If any good comes from the dire drought conditions, it is that people are recognizing the need to address adding more water storage in California, he said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent

 
 


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