Can El Niño ease San Joaquin Valley’s drought? Don’t bet on it, experts say
Protecting and securing a reliable water supply in the San Joaquin Valley is arguably the most important issue facing our region. Job security and the future success of the Valley’s economy are directly dependent on our access to reliable and secure supplies of high-quality water.
Four years of continuous drought have left California, and in particular, the Valley, in dire straits. Each of us has been directly impacted by and witness to this devastating drought in one way or another. Here are some examples of how our entire region has been affected:
▪ An estimated 600,000 acres of productive agriculture land has been fallowed.
▪ Land in the Valley is subsiding because families are drilling deeper wells to meet their everyday needs, and farmers are pumping groundwater at unsustainable rates to avoid the catastrophic impacts of pulling out hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of permanent crops.
▪ The Valley unemployment rate is twice as high as the rest of the country.
▪ And in 2015 alone, California lost $2.2 billion as a result of the drought.
These devastating impacts have brought many of us to pray for rain and snow in the mountains and we continue to hope that this El Niño brings rainfall amounts that are significantly greater than average.
With above average rainfall and snow in the mountains, Valley families, communities, and farmers can rest easy, right? No, since Oct. 1, 2015, over 3.395 million acre-feet of water have gone out into the ocean. That is nearly 11.1 trillion gallons of water! To put that number in context, an average American family uses around 400 gallons of water for their daily use.
The point is that there is water in the system that can be moved to the Valley, but state and federal agencies are utterly failing to manage the water in a balanced manner that provides benefits to people and to endangered species.
Due to the unwillingness of the state and federal agencies to pump water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta at maximum legal levels, even when water is gushing through the system, California is likely to find itself in a situation where most regions of the state are experiencing flood conditions, and for the fifth year in a row, Valley farmers and communities could receive zero surface water deliveries from the Central Valley Project.
As a result of state and federal agencies’ unwillingness to operate at the most flexible range allowable under the Biological Opinions that govern California’s water delivery water system, over 27,000 acre-feet of water was lost last week alone and over 169,000 acre-feet of water has been lost this water year. If state and federal agencies continue to make operational decisions in the way they have, much more water will be lost.
In Congress, we are still working diligently to pass legislation that provides short- and long-term solutions for fixing California’s broken water system. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation Feb. 10 that would provide $1.3 billion in funding and support for desalination, recycling efforts, and water storage projects, like Temperance Flat and the expansion of San Luis Reservoir. The bill also would direct state and federal agencies to maximize water supplies during the short-term while not violating environmental laws that protect threatened and endangered species.
While I support Sen. Feinstein’s legislation because it provides vital funding for solving our state’s water problems in the long-term and would complement the ongoing efforts made by the recent passage of the California Water Bond, I support stronger operational direction language like that in the House bill, H.R. 2898, because it would require the state and federal agencies to maximize the amount of water they are pumping from the Delta, unless they can prove that direct and identifiable environmental harm is imminent.
The House has passed H.R. 2898 which was introduced by Rep. David Valadao and me, and the San Joaquin Valley delegation. I urge my colleagues in the Senate to pass Sen. Feinstein’s bill so that we can enter negotiations with the House and Senate bills to move a California water bill to the president’s desk for signature.
We must fix California’s broken water system.
Time is of the essence and every day of delay only results in losses of vital water supplies for Californians in need. Failure to provide relief to the people of the Valley during an El Niño event would be unacceptable, unnecessary, and immoral.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, represents California's 16th District, which includes all of Merced County and portions of Fresno and Madera counties.