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San Joaquin Valley growers face further cuts in water supply

by Rand Green | October 25, 2009
FRESNO, CA -- It wasn't supposed to be this way. When water districts that supply water to millions of acres of orchards on the east side of California's San Joaquin Valley agreed three years ago, as part of a settlement of an 18- year lawsuit brought by the National Resource Defense Council, to allow 225,000 acre-feet of water to be returned to the dry bed of the San Joaquin River for a river restoration project, it was on the strength of certain promises in the agreement that would make the arrangement something by which the districts could abide.

But by the time the first experimental releases from Friant Dam into the river bed that has been dry for some 60 years were made Oct. 6, several of those promises had been negated, according to growers and industry spokespeople interviewed by The Produce News.

One of the more important assurances in the Friant Agreement, according to growers, was that water released into the river, after reaching the Sacramento River Delta, would be pumped back out of the Delta and recirculated so that it could still be used for irrigation in the valley.

But that recirculation is not going to happen, thanks to the same court- ordered restriction on pumping water out of the Delta (to protect a small fish called the Delta Smelt) that earlier this year terminated water deliveries to West Side farmers from the federal Central Valley Water Project, idling more than 300,000 acres of once highly productive land.

"It is the beginning of the East Side man-made drought to match up to the West Side man-made drought" that growers on the other side of the valley are already experiencing, said Denis Prosperi, a grape and almond grower in Madera, CA, and chairman of Families Protecting the Valley.

When 800,000 acre-feet of water formerly delivered to farms on the West Side was shut off, those farms "immediately started drying up," he explained. "On the East Side, they won't dry up as quick" because there are more wells. "But the die is cast."

The valley's ground water "has been dropping over the last 30 to 40 years. It has become a critical problem in many areas already," he said. The Friant Agreement will take away about 20 percent of the supply of surface water for the East Side, so "obviously everybody is going to pump more ground water," and that is not sustainable.

Attitudes toward the Friant Agreement vary, said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League in Fresno, CA. Some are very unhappy with the way things are turning out. Others are "not happy with it" but feel that "to go back to court would only result in the loss of more water. No one is saying that it is going to be good for agricultural production."

"Only in America do you have a regulated drought that requires land for production to be left fallow," forcing farm workers whose labors once fed the nation "to stand in food lines to get food from offshore suppliers," said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA. "And then we release water down a dry river bed" to run into the ocean.

If the agreed mitigation promises had been kept, citrus growers could have lived with the Friant Agreement, Mr. Nelsen said, but even then there would have been no margin left for drought or for additional urban demands on the water supply.

"What has caused some significant angst amongst us at Citrus Mutual and our East Side producers," Mr. Nelsen said, "is that now there seems to be some piling on for demand of the remaining water supply" for environmental use.

Kent Stephens, chief financial officer for Sunview Vineyards in Delano, CA, said that without recirculation, the river restoration project will mean that probably 20 percent of the surface water from the Friant Agreement will be lost to farmers "right off the bat," although the impact on water users will vary.

Describing the resulting agricultural water shortages as a "man-made drought is really correct," Mr. Stephens said. Even in a dry year, California has had plenty of water, but because of court decisions and "biological opinions," much of the water that once came to valley farms is being sent to the ocean.

U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) sponsored a bill in March to authorize and fund the court-approved San Joaquin River restoration settlement. More recently, they also sponsored an amendment to the Energy & Water Appropriations Bill approved Oct. 15 by the Senate to allow for water transfers "to help agricultural communities in the Central Valley that have been hard hit by three years of drought," according to a press release from Sen. Boxer's office.

But while the water transfer measure may facilitate moving what water is available in the valley from one spot to another, "it doesn't recover what we've lost," said Mr. Nelsen. "So we took a small step forward and two larger steps back. No, it's not good."