Chalk one up for the Valley’s farmers in the latest round of California’s ongoing water wars.
Federal officials on Tuesday announced that they were implementing a new plan to move more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta south to Valley farmers. The move fulfills a promise President Trump made to growers a year ago.
The move delighted farming interests, but angered environmentalists, who see it as a water grab to the detriment of Chinook salmon and Delta smelt, two endangered fish that have suffered in the last decade under current management practices.
One aspect of the new plan is that it should yield important information that both sides of the contentious debate need. Federal officials will develop fish data in real time, and make water allocations on that basis, rather than be held to rigid rules that required there be no pumping to farms even when heavy winter rains meant an abundance of water.
One way data will be developed is having scientists on boats in the Delta monitoring the smelt. Pumping would be curtailed whenever that would harm the tiny fish.
For some opponents, the fact that the Trump administration proposed the plan is enough justification not to like it. Thankfully, Gov. Gavin Newsom had a measured response, with a spokeswoman saying the governor will evaluate the plan “but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.”
Deliveries cut back
The rules that have been in place for the past decade significantly cut water deliveries to south-of-Delta farmers. Over the last five years, the giant Westlands Water District, whose growers tend to fields and orchards on the westside of Fresno and Kings counties, has received an average of just 45 percent of the water it contacted for from the federal Central Valley Project.
In droughts, Westlands farmers receive severe cutbacks, or even no water, from the CVP. In the drought year of 2009, Westlands received a 40 percent reduction in water deliveries. UC Davis studied the resulting impact: An estimated 249,000 acres were left idled, there was a loss of $368 million in farm revenue and a total economic loss of $796 million. Nearly 10,000 jobs were lost.
Westlands and other farming groups have for years complained that the CVP was a broken project. With the new plan, the farmers’ hope is that the water scale will tip back more toward their needs.
Another benefit of getting more surface water would be lessening the need to pump groundwater. Growers had to run their pumps excessively during the drought years, and that in turn caused groundwater tables to fall so much in some places that the land actually sank.
Opponents pledge lawsuit
No sooner had the new plan been announced than environmental groups promised to sue in court to stop it. That would be a shame. It has been clear to anyone watching the Delta water situation that the current system was not working — farmers did not have the water they required and the fish populations have continued to decline.
Getting new data based on real-time conditions in the Delta will be invaluable toward identifying today’s problems and developing solutions. Maybe the effort might even help end the longtime war over water in Central California. That would be truly amazing. The plan deserves support, not another legal fight.