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Mother Nature and regulatory drought in California

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As the beginning of the irrigation season approaches, a large area of the West is blanketed by moderate to severe drought. There are pockets of extreme to exceptional drought centered in north-central Nevada, Idaho’s Snake River Valley, parts of Colorado and New Mexico, and California’s Central Valley. Despite a few recent wet storms, the biggest news in the West continues to be the ongoing dry weather pattern across much of California that could have severe impacts on the economy.

Things are blowing up in California and farmers and ranchers are scrambling, with the state in its worst drought in 160 years of recordkeeping. Since Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s Jan. 17 declaration of a Drought State of Emergency, the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce are working with the State of California to accelerate water transfers and exchanges, provide operational flexibility to store and convey water, expedite environmental review and compliance actions, and pursue new or fast-track existing projects that might help stretch California’s water supplies.

Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) announced an initial zero water allocation for south-of-Delta Central Valley Project (CVP) agricultural water service contractors. USBR also announced 40% allocations to Sacramento River Settlement contractors and the San Joaquin River Exchange contractors, something that has never happened before. This comes as no surprise due to the record dry conditions experienced over the last 12 months, coupled with water supply reductions related to federal regulatory actions.

The situation in California merits further consideration, since the looming water crisis there is not solely due to Mother Nature. A significant cause for the lack of stored water in California today is the complicated and sometimes nonsensical way in which laws have been implemented by federal agencies in recent years. Since 1977, a multitude of government regulatory and policy decisions have placed a raft of priority environmental uses ahead of historic humans needs. This has reduced the average water supply for some CVP water users to 40% reliability from 90% reliability. The proof will be seen on the ground this year in California, as hundreds of thousands of acres of the most productive farmland on the planet will go without water.

This is an important issue, not just to the family farms and ranches that have long relied on CVP water, but to producers in other Western states, as well. After all, policies often start in California and slowly spread to other parts of the country.

The farmers and ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley face a very difficult situation. Many people, including urban dwellers in California’s cities, do not even realize that the looming water crisis is due in large part to a regulatory drought, although Mother Nature is certainly contributing to the problem. This may be due, in part, to the extensive coverage afforded by urban media outlets to President Obama’s February visit to Fresno, where he pointed to the California drought situation as the latest example to support his initiative to combat climate change. Many folks on the street have no idea that environmental regulations and the virtual halt of new water storage infrastructure for agriculture in the past 30 years likely have far more to do with the current situation than does climate change.

The frustrating fact is that the water cutbacks that have already occurred are not increasing the populations of salmon and the three-inch delta smelt, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Water that once was pumped and diverted for agricultural use is now being left in the system for the purported (but unproven) benefit to fish. That water—which amounts to hundreds of thousands of acre-feet flushed to the sea in a very brief time period—now flows out through the Golden Gate and into the Pacific Ocean, unused.

The current implementation of the ESA and other environmental laws has redirected once-reliable water supplies to the apparent needs of ESA-protected fish. The loss of that water and resulting loss of productive farm land is already chipping away at rural communities on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Schools are closing, vendors are going broke, and families and friends are fighting as the law creates “haves” and “have nots.” This year, those communities could be permanently crippled if the current ESA-driven management style in the California Bay-Delta does not change in a way that injects common-sense discretion and balance into the decision-making process.

Looming on the horizon for farmers and ranchers in California and other parts of the West are plans by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make listing decisions on nearly 800 species by 2016.  Those decisions could mean more regulatory drought, despite what Mother Nature does. —Dan Keppen, Family Farm Alliance

Dan Keppen Dan Keppen (
Executive Director, Family Farm Alliance

View more posts by Dan Keppen

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.