Valley farmers like Joe Del Bosque, whose situation was spotlighted recently in the Los Angeles Times, was begging for and buying water during last year’s drought at $1,000 to $1,300 per acre-foot after federal water officials failed to make good on water allocation contracts.
These farmers thought themselves lucky to find willing sellers. But now it looks like their luck will run out courtesy of their perennial but faithless friend and occasional foe, the federal government.
When water is plentiful, hundreds of farmers buy water from the Central Valley Project, a federal water supplier, at $220 per acre-foot. During the drought, though, thousands of California farmers had to shop from water districts up and down the state. It was a sellers’ market.
Encouraged by state and federal officials, and plain old common sense, hundreds of farmers and water districts conserved water. They then chose to store their purchased water in San Luis Reservoir, a federal water facility connected to the state’s aqueducts.
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The sixth year of drought was universally devastating. The federal government literally ran out of water to satisfy all its varying priorities – farm, urban, and environmental. In a desperate cry for help, the Bureau of Reclamation appealed to those with water saved in San Luis, asking for a loan of water to make it through the year. The water users, including farmers, agreed. Reclamation barely made it through the sixth year of drought, and repaid the loan, putting the water back in San Luis, when fall rains came.
Now that Mother Nature has given California an entire season’s rainfall in just 10 weeks, – and more appears to be on the way – San Luis is 92% full and on its way to the brim for the first time in many years.
Should the federal government, through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, fill the dam, Del Bosque and hundreds of others will lose the water they stored there – without asking, without compensation, without so much as an apology. The water these farmers own cost them millions of dollars to buy and save. They stand to lose every penny.
It’s not right that private property – water purchased with an individual’s hard-earned dollars – should be transferred to the federal government free of charge at the farmer’s loss when they put that farmer in the very position of having to buy the water in the first place.
These same federal water managers at Reclamation charged with operating San Luis decided a few years back not to proceed with raising the dam and expanding its storage capacity. They said it was doubtful the reservoir would ever fill with water again. Climate change, they said.
California’s complex water system needs many improvements to function better. It starts with correcting this injustice immediately.
We know he’s pretty busy at the moment, but perhaps the new president will take a minute and send word to his cabinet secretary at the Department of the Interior – Reclamation’s boss – that farmers like Del Bosque deserve a fair shake rather than a swift kick.
Oh, wait, what Secretary of Interior? He hasn’t been confirmed yet.
Erik Hansen is a fifth generation San Joaquin Valley farmer and executive board member of the California Water Alliance. Readers may contact him at ErikH@CaliforniaWaterAlliance.org.