Valley Voices

When feds dilly-dally on water, our ag economy takes a hit

Water from snow melt cascades down the South Fork of the American River near Echo Summit on May 1, 2017. Even though California received huge amounts of snow and rain this winter and spring, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did not announce its 100% allocation of water to growers south of the Delta until April 11.
Water from snow melt cascades down the South Fork of the American River near Echo Summit on May 1, 2017. Even though California received huge amounts of snow and rain this winter and spring, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did not announce its 100% allocation of water to growers south of the Delta until April 11. AP

After three years of virtually no water deliveries, the Bureau of Reclamation’s 100% allocation for south-of-Delta agricultural water service contractors was a relief.

But even in a year when Reclamation could allocate 100%, the process that resulted in that allocation illustrates there are fundamental problems with the regulatory constraints that restrict Central Valley Project operations.

Historically, Reclamation issues its initial forecast of operations in mid-January, and the initial allocation is made in mid-February.

These dates are important because the farmers who receive CVP water must make decisions about their annual operations early in the year. For example, how much acreage and what crops to plant. But because of the restrictions imposed under the Endangered Species Act and other federal regulations, it makes timely farming decisions nearly impossible.

The beginning of this year is a perfect example of the broken system. In January, everything indicated that 2017 was going to be a very wet year and those conditions continued into February. Despite the near record rainfall, Reclamation was unable to meet its contractual obligation and provide an initial allocation, citing concern over whether there would be enough water in Shasta Reservoir to protect winter-run Chinook salmon.

On the last day of February, Reclamation attempted to provide some guidance announcing that growers could reliably expect to receive what was equivalent to a 25% allocation, which was likely to increase. Finally, on March 22, Reclamation announced a 65% allocation, despite continued rainfall and near capacity conditions at reservoirs around the state. Three weeks later, on April 11, Reclamation acknowledged the obvious – there was sufficient water to allocate 100% to south-of-Delta growers.

For farmers with permanent crops, the 100% allocation is a blessing because these farmers will have adequate, good quality surface water to irrigate their orchards and vineyards. In addition, the 100% allocation will provide a much-needed rest for the groundwater basin.

But for the farmers who in January were trying to decide whether to plant 500 acres of tomatoes, lettuce, or broccoli, the news in late March or early April that there was sufficient water to plant these acres was too late. For the seed company, the fertilizer company, the trucking company and the farm workers who would have been hired to plant and harvest these 500 acres, the news came too late for them as well.

Most businesses take for granted the availability of essential resources they use such as electricity, fuels or raw materials. It’s not hard to imagine how a manufacturer or grocery store manager would react if the electric utility was unsure about when (or whether) electricity would be provided for their business; the business would move to an area where electricity could be reliably delivered.

Similarly, farmers experience significant strains on their ability to grow the food we take for granted as they try to figure out when, whether, or how much of their most important resource will be available to them.

Opponents of farming will claim that unused water is evidence that farmers do not need a full allocation and therefore the allocation should be reduced. After all, these are the same politicians and environmental groups that frequently mislead the public about farming. But these claims are based on the consequences of an unnecessarily delayed decision-making process, not the actual amount of water that could or should have been used to grow the food we eat.

Providing water is a fundamental function of government. What more evidence is required to demonstrate that an overhaul of the laws and regulations governing the CVP is necessary? It is time to address the core institutional problems that plague how the CVP is operated so we can avoid predictably unpredictable consequences.

Don Peracchi is board president of Westlands Water District and farms on the west side of Fresno County.

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