Unprecedented drought in California combined with regulators’ inflexible commitment to “endangered” species has put the state’s agricultural producers in dire straights. But as the crisis continues, the realities of rising food costs and environmental damage due to loss of agricultural ground could finally lead policymakers in the Golden State to reconsider their priorities. Like a long-awaited rain, this shift in mentality could be the saving grace of producers.
Despite recent spring rains, the National Weather Service is still reporting the entire state to be in severe drought, with two-thirds of the state falling under the “extreme” drought category. Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland lie fallow across the state. Cattlemen are reducing their herd sizes, reportedly by 75 percent in some areas. Farmers and ranchers are getting 5 percent of their normal allocations in the Klamath Basin and farther south in areas supplied by the State Water Project. Behind each of these problems, says California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) President Paul Wenger, are three main causes: the three-year drought, lack of water storage mechanisms and facilities in California, and “environmental” policies that have, in fact, ended up hurting the environment because of their lack of flexibility.
When water supplies get tight, the reaction of California and federal agencies has been to cut off farmers and ranchers and divert surface water to “endangered” fish—from the steelhead and sucker in the Klamath to the delta smelt in the San Joaquin. To date, the agencies haven’t strayed far from that policy, even as many of California’s producers are threatened with bankruptcy. A recent blueprint for water use in the state, produced jointly by California and federal agencies, lists as two of its four primary purposes the “protection” of Chinook salmon and other “endangered species and other fish and wildlife resources.” Nowhere in the plan’s list of primary purposes is the preservation of agricultural production. Wenger says this omission has been typical of California’s water use plans in recent decades.
Wenger told WLJ that, for the “environmental” interests entrenched in California’s water issues, “It hasn’t been about saving the species, it’s been about control…For the past 20 years, there have been some folks who have utilized species to exercise control over land use decisions and private property rights.”
He explained that “environmental” regulations and groups have prevented water storage mechanisms from being put in place across the state, and that it’s been to the detriment of farmers and ranchers, consumers, and fish. “I really think we can save these species with the technology we have—if we’re allowed to use it,” said Wenger. “It’s really interesting. You have your environmentalists who say dams are bad, water storage is bad— but they’re more than willing to take that water and use it for sustained flows to fish. They stand in the way of [water storage], yet they want to use it.”
According to Wenger, California’s last major reservoir was installed in 1978. More water storage is going to be necessary if the climate continues to trend away from heavy snow and toward more rains, he said.
“Climate change is happening—it has been since God created the earth,” he said. California’s system will have to adapt to the current trend, he said, in order to capture more water at lower levels when snow-pack is lacking. With more water storage, producers can have more stability from year to year in their farming and livestock operations.
“And with more reservoirs, we can have more control over the temperatures in rivers, which helps fish. We were never able to do that before reservoirs.”
The problem is, Wenger said, “environmental” activists want to say that farming and ranching are at odds with environmental protection. But he said nothing could be farther from the truth.
Indeed, California’s farm and ranchlands help protect water quality, provide vital wildlife habitat, and (for those concerned with greenhouse gas emissions) store carbon. According to American Farmland Trust (AFT), 30,000 acres of farmland are lost to development in California each year. This is not just an environmental problem—it’s also an economic and a food security issue, AFT says.
The drought is only expected to expedite conversion of farmland, which in turn is predicted to have serious impacts at the grocery checkout. A recent study predicted that if the California drought reduces supplies of certain fresh produce crops by 20 percent (which is not an unreasonable prediction), retail prices for those items could rise by as much as 34 percent this year.
However, there may be a silver lining: Wenger told WLJ that legislators across California, both at the state and national levels, are beginning to realize the impacts that the reduction in agriculture production will likely have on their constituents. That could translate into policy changes, he said.
“We’re hoping that the current group of people in Sacramento are changing. We’re seeing some of those urban legislators that don’t follow that same ‘environmental’ path that representatives from those districts typically have,” Wenger said. “There are still your elite who don’t care about the cost of food, or where food comes from. But then there are those with constituents in places like Oakland or Compton who are worried about the price and availability of food. All of the sudden, those lawmakers seem more open to looking at the real problems we’re facing. People need food, power and water…We’re hoping that pragmatism will start to take hold with the State Water Resources Control Board, the legislature, and the governor.”
Wenger pointed to some positive actions being taken, both in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. The State Assembly is considering water bond legislation that would provide a steady stream of money for new water storage infrastructure.
Wenger also voiced support for legislation percolating at the national level, aimed at getting water back to farmers in central California and putting in place more water storage mechanisms throughout the state. Those efforts are being led in the House of Representatives by Congressmen David G. Valadao (R-CA21), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA23), and Devin Nunes (R-CA22). Their bill, the Sacramento– San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, recently passed the House with bipartisan support. The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), faces a tougher climb, Wenger said.
“We appreciate the effort,” Wenger said, recognizing that a Senate bill would have to look very different from the House bill in order to pass. “It will be a heavy lift. But if we can’t get something done in this 2014 drought, what kind of conditions would it take?” Meanwhile, some California legislators are exploring ways to give the state authority to regulate groundwater.
The California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) has joined CFBF in opposing this idea.
“We support private property rights, and we support the historic application of our water rights system in California, which includes the right to use groundwater,” said CCA’s Vice President of Government Relations Justin Oldfield. “Any attempt to deviate from that, we would not be comfortable with.”
Both CCA and CFBF voiced support for local regulation of groundwater, in cases where locals determine it’s needed. CFBF has asserted that the state’s authority should not be expanded to groundwater, when it has already proven inept at overseeing surface water.
“We don’t have a groundwater crisis because of a lack of state regulation,” Wenger said. “We have a groundwater crisis because we have a surface water crisis, driven by decades of inaction.” He drove home his point that California needs to act now to improve its water storage capacity.
When asked about a recent “agreement” signed on the Upper Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border, forcing water reductions for hundreds of ranchers in the name of “protecting the fish,” Wenger was incredulous about plans to remove four dams.
“Those dams could be being used to help salmonid survival, but instead [proponents of dam removal] are showing their true colors. It’s about control, not restoring salmon runs,” he said.
But Wenger said that California agricultural production’s woes may finally be about to bring a shift in the political winds. “I expect some real volatility in food prices,” Wenger said, “and unfortunately that might be what it takes to turn California water policy around.” — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent