When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was in Fresno on May 27, he declared to a crowd of several thousand people that California does not have a drought.
His comments raised more than a few eyebrows among those who have experienced the devastation that four dry years have done to the state’s grasslands, underground water supply and farm fields.
A recent report by CoBank, a national agricultural lender, put the drought into hard numbers. Last year, the drought caused California growers to fallow 540,000 acres. This year, between 300,000 and 350,000 acres will not be farmed because of a lack of water. Total losses to agriculture are estimated at $1 billion to $1.5 billion.
But Trump’s claims also ignited those who believe that water for agriculture has been shortchanged in favor of environmental policies to protect endangered fish species. They say the drought is more man-made than natural.
As the issue of how to manage California’s water supply continues to be debated, here is what scientists and water experts tell us about the drought.
Q: Are we in a drought?
A: Yes. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey report that California is in its fifth year of a severe drought, based on several years of below-average rainfall and snowpack.
Also, the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska shows that a majority of California remains in severe drought conditions, or worse. The national center puts together the often-cited U.S. Drought Monitor map. The map shows that the San Joaquin Valley is under extreme drought conditions, meaning there have been crop/pasture losses and widespread water shortages or restrictions.
Q: California has experienced dry years before – 1976-77, 1987-92 – but there was still water available for farmers. What makes this drought different?
A: Unlike previous droughts, the latest drought that began in 2012 is more widespread than the others. It also included the driest three years in the past 120 years. The year 2014 was also the hottest on record, making conditions even worse, said the Public Policy Institute of California.
Environmental restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where West Side farmers receive their surface water, also have increased over the past three decades, said Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources.
The need to protect endangered fish species in the Delta has, at times, restricted the movement of water through the environmentally sensitive area.
“And we still have not fixed the problem,” Parker said.
Q: Trump said during his recent stop in Fresno: “You have a water problem that is so insane, so ridiculous, where they are taking the water and shoving it out to sea.” Why is that happening?
A: Freshwater does flow out to the ocean through the Delta. And it’s for a good reason, said Shane Hunt, public affairs officer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Freshwater is necessary to control the level of salt coming in from the Pacific Ocean. The area is considered an estuary where fresh river water mixes with salty ocean water.
Freshwater also is important to maintain the ecosystem in the Delta. The area is home to hundreds of aquatic and terrestrial species.
Hunt said that without freshwater flowing out through the Delta, salinity levels would rise and the Delta water would not be usable for people to drink or to use on farms.
Hunt acknowledges that there still is much disagreement about how much freshwater is needed for environmental purposes vs. agriculture and cities.
“We are trying to find that balance,” Hunt said. “But people see it differently depending on which side they are on.”