Opinion Columns & Blogs

Enviros say dams are bad – until they need cold water

Low clouds and fog shroud parts of San Luis Reservoir at Dinosaur Point on Jan. 24, 2017.
Low clouds and fog shroud parts of San Luis Reservoir at Dinosaur Point on Jan. 24, 2017. The Fresno Bee file

Gov. Jerry Brown decreed it, so it must be true: Our five-year drought is over.

“About time!” say most people. We’ve had near-record rainfall; there’s 30 feet of snow melting in the Sierra; our reservoirs are full (for April); even our mud puddles are overflowing. And west side farmers are getting all the water they’ve been promised for the second time this century. Yes, the drought’s over. For now.

So everyone’s relieved, right?

Not quite. Some are insisting that just because you can’t see the drought only means you’re not looking in the right place. Until the 10 million acre-feet of water farmers pumped the past five years has been returned, says the Natural Resources Defense Council, we'll remain in a subterranean drought.

Sure sounds dire. Could it be that the NRDC depends on such dire pronouncements to keep vast rivers flowing – rivers of cash. The organization raised $133 million in 2015.

While the NRDC and other environmental organizations are entirely alarmist, they’re not entirely wrong. Many drought-stricken south valley farmers did pump too much, causing some aquifers to collapse and the ground above to sink – sometimes up to a foot. Once collapsed, those aquifers are lost. A Stanford study in the journal Water Resources Research shows the south valley lost from 336,000 to 600,000 acre-feet of storage capacity during the drought.

We’re not immune. Retired hydrologist Vance Kennedy has warned repeatedly that we’re seeing a “slow-motion catastrophe” as vast almond orchards are planted in the Sierra foothills. Unlike the flat land around our rivers, hillside aquifers replenish by only a few inches per year. With little surface water available, farmers pump the 30 to 36 inches the trees require, causing the water-table to drop 10 to 20 feet. That’s clearly unsustainable.

Sustainable is the key word. One of the things the NRDC fails to mention in its dire announcements is that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 requires all groundwater basins become sustainable by 2030. If no sustainability plan is submitted by 2022, the state will impose one. In the valley, where farming is a way of life and dependency on our rivers and aquifers is a given, planning is well underway. Not so much in the foothills.

Meanwhile, the NRDC has found it convenient to excoriate farmers for creating this underground drought. Never mind that, with water to spare this year, some farmers are flooding vineyards and orchards to allow as much as possible to soak in. Others have reversed their pumps, recharging aquifers.

They also ignore the 10 million acre-feet held underground in the Kern Water Bank – 20 to 30 times the lost capacity identified by Stanford. Nearby, Semi-Tropic water bank has another 1.6 million acre-feet.

Losing that much aquifer storage is bad, but it’s not in the same league as losing a major dam. Or refusing to build one, such as Sites or Temperance Flat.

Even suggesting new dams or increasing reservoir capacity – proven ways of storing vast amounts of water for shared use – sends such organizations into a frenzy. A proposed dam on Bear River east of Sacramento was blasted by environmental organizations this week. Enviros say dams are awful … until they need cold water.

During the drought, the cold water found only in deep pools behind dams is all that kept many migrating salmon alive. In their critiques of farming, the NRDC didn’t mention that salmon are actually doing far better on our rivers despite the drought. Numbers have rebounded from the low hundreds to 3,500 on the Tuolumne last winter, with nearly 3,000 on the Merced; on the Stanislaus 15,000 salmon returned.

The NRDC demands more water, but offers nothing tangible to help the people of our region. No lobbying lawmakers for incentives to pressurize irrigation delivery systems or install telemetric monitoring or funds to convert wastewater into irrigation water as the cities of Ceres, Turlock and Modesto are already doing.

It’s far easier – and likely more lucrative – to cast farmers as villains. One NRDC press release said the hidden drought was “due to the insatiable straw of (the) agriculture industry” that “will never be satisfied.”

NRDC director of water projects Kate Poole (resist the pun) wrote: “Even after this unusually wet season, there won’t be enough water to satisfy all the demands of agriculture, business and cities, without draining our rivers and groundwater basins below sustainable levels.”

Another press release called pumping “dangerously unsustainable” without offering any proof or alternatives.

It’s unfair to say the NRDC hasn’t contributed anything; there’s this dandy slogan: “More crop per drop.”

What they really meant to say was “Stop the crop,” but we get the message.

Mike Dunbar is the editorial page editor and a columnist for The Modesto Bee. Email: mdunbar@modbee.com

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