Other Opinions

Westside farmers remain water short despite all the rain and snow of this wet year

Irrigated fields in the Westlands Water District border Interstate 5 west of Tranquillity in June 2015.
Irrigated fields in the Westlands Water District border Interstate 5 west of Tranquillity in June 2015. The New York Times

Last week the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced an increased allocation to 70 percent for south-of-Delta Central Valley Project agricultural water service contractors. This increase is welcome; however, given continued wet hydrologic conditions and current Central Valley Project reservoir storage, which is well above the long-term average, it is difficult to comprehend why the allocation remains below 100 percent.

The 2019 water year will go down as one of the wettest years on record. Reclamation’s inability to provide south-of-Delta CVP water service contractors with full contract supplies is further evidence of the draconian impact ineffective regulations have had on water supplies for people. These regulations, theoretically intended to protect at-risk fish species, have strangled water supplies while continuously failing to provide effective protection for the species — all of which have continued to decline.

Westlands Water District’s Tom Birmingham speaks with Ron Milligan, right, operations manager for the Central Valley Project, which is run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. MARK CROSSE Fresno Bee file

It is for this reason Reclamation has re-initiated consultation on the long-term operation of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. This consultation enables the development of new biological opinions based on science developed over the last decade. It is the district’s greatest hope these new biological opinions will abandon restrictions on CVP operations that are unsupported by science and lead to absurd water supply reductions. The new biological opinions must protect at-risk fish species from the risk of extinction without unreasonably tying the hands of project operators. The best science currently available has demonstrated that both of these objectives can be accomplished simultaneously.

Decisions that affect CVP water allocations are not the product of some objective formula. Rather, these decisions reflect the exercise of discretion by agency staff, and these decisions affect people and the environment. These decisions affect how much land farmers can plant, how many people will be employed on farms, and how much consumers will pay for food produced by farmers and the people they employ. These decisions affect businesses and communities in every region of the San Joaquin Valley. These decisions affect how much groundwater will be pumped from overdrafted groundwater basins.

I know that reclamation staff understand the consequences of the decisions they make. This understanding is demonstrated by their diligent work to revise biological opinions that have produced no tangible benefits for at-risk fish species and have decimated its ability to supply water. The district hopes their colleagues in other federal and state agencies understand and consider the effects on people caused by their exercise of discretion.

Further, the district hopes that as a result of work being done by these government officials on the new biological opinions and on voluntary agreements to address the reasonable protection of beneficial uses of water for fish and wildlife in the Bay-Delta watershed, future operations of the CVP will be sufficiently flexible to meet the water supply needs of people.

Thomas Birmingham is general manager of the Westlands Water District. Westlands is the largest agricultural water district in the United States, made up of more than 1,000 square miles of prime farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties. Westlands provides water to 700 family-owned farms that average 653 acres in size.