Fish or farmers? Newsom drought declaration would trigger new war over California water

BY DALE KASLER AND RYAN SABALOW Via The Sacramento Bee

When a bipartisan group of state legislators held a press conference last week to demand that Gov. Gavin Newsom declare a statewide drought emergency, they assembled at a withered farm field east of Fresno, complete with piles of dead trees in the background.

The choice was no accident. With California already experiencing drought-like conditions, Central Valley farmers and their elected representatives are the ones putting the most political pressure on Newsom to make it official.

“We need every tool in the tool box we can get,” said Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “We are staring down the barrel of some very severe drought conditions right now.”

Experts say a statewide drought declaration would help drive home the need for conservation to Californians. But its impact would go well beyond symbolism and communications; it could bring significant consequences for the regulatory structure governing California’s complicated water-delivery system.

Many farmers believe an emergency order could loosen environmental regulations and free up water supplies for them. Environmental groups fear the very same thing – that more of California’s dwindling water supply could be directed to farming at the expense of fish and wildlife.

In the last drought, decisions by state officials to relax environmental standards “led to a vast shifting of water to agriculture, while wildlife, including the salmon our industry depends on, were left to die,” said John McManus of the Golden State Salmon Association, which represents commercial fishermen.

The debate over a drought declaration underscores a chronic truism about California water – there’s rarely enough of it to make everyone happy, creating an almost endless tug-of-war that usually pits farms against fish. 

Farmers and environmentalists use the courts, the regulatory agencies and the Legislature to fight over how much water should flow naturally through the rivers – and how much should be pulled out of the rivers to nurture the state’s $50 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

When supplies get really tight, the rivalry intensifies, and two straight ultra-dry winters have left California leaders with difficult choices on how to balance the competing demands.

Newsom has so far resisted declaring a statewide emergency, saying conditions are tough but don’t yet warrant an official drought finding. In the last drought, urban Californians were forced to scale back their outdoor water usage, and some political pundits believe the Democratic governor is reluctant to announce bad news with a recall election heading to the ballot.

Newsom did issue a regional drought declaration last month for Sonoma and Mendocino counties, reflecting dire conditions on the Russian River. But that order only ramped up the criticism in many rural precincts; Republican lawmakers grumbled that Newsom was acting to help the affluent wine country while ignoring the plight of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, a GOP stronghold.

“The Central Valley can’t afford to be overlooked,” state Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, said on Twitter.

WOULD A DROUGHT DECLARATION SAVE CALIFORNIA FARMERS?

Anxieties over drought crystallized in late March, when the managers of the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project – the twin networks of reservoirs and canals that deliver billions of gallons of supplies to farms and cities – issued stunning updates on California’s water conditions.

The state project, which mainly serves urban Southern California, the Bay Area and parts of rural San Joaquin Valley, cut its expected 2021 allocations in half, to just 5% of what its customers had contracted. The federal project said most of its customers, including farm irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley, might not get any deliveries at all.

By that time, the federal Department of Agriculture had already declared a drought disaster in California, making farmers eligible for financial assistance. The calls for Newsom to declare a statewide emergency gathered momentum, with both Democrats and Republicans in rural areas petitioning the governor.

On Wednesday, in a further sign of the deteriorating conditions, the federal project placed a hold on deliveries to many farmers in the Sacramento Valley as well — a move that could devastate Northern California’s $800 million-a-year rice crop.

FILE – In this April 21, 2021, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a news conference in the parched basin of Lake Mendocino in Ukiah, where he announced he would proclaim a drought emergency for Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Mired yet another drought that threatens drinking water, endangered species of fish and the state’s massive agriculture industry, Democrats in the California Senate on Thursday, April 29, 2021, detailed a $3.4 billion proposal designed to gird the state for a new crisis on the heels of a deadly and disruptive pandemic. Kent Porter  THE PRESS DEMOCRAT VIA AP

Many leaders in California agriculture acknowledge that a statewide drought declaration by Newsom won’t make farmers’ troubles disappear overnight. There simply isn’t enough water in the system to make an enormous difference in supply.

“The entire system is so dry and there aren’t the full reservoirs,” said Mike Wade, director of an advocacy group called the California Farm Water Coalition. “I don’t think anybody has any expectation that there’s a hidden supply of water that’s going to show up if there’s a drought declaration.”

But farmers in the Valley do think Newsom could ease their plight.

At the very least, Jacobsen said Newsom could order a streamlining of the regulations that can often slow down the approvals of water transfers – private deals made between farmers and other water users, usually for cash.

Newsom’s predecessor Jerry Brown issued a similar order in 2013, two years before he issued a statewide drought declaration. The declaration was rescinded in 2017 after the wettest winter on record.

“What we’re asking for is very reasonable,” Jacobsen said. “At least to have something to be able to get through this year, it makes a difference.”

WATER TENSIONS RISE ON THE KLAMATH

The executive order Newsom issued last month, declaring a drought emergency on the Russian River, acknowledged that water shortages exist elsewhere. 

In particular, he mentioned the Klamath region of far Northern California, where farmers have been told by the federal government’s Klamath Project that they could get as little as 8% of what they need to grow their potatoes, onions and other crops.

The federal government says this is the worst year on record for the amount of water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake, which serves as the project’s primary reservoir.

If history is any guide, it could make for a contentious summer in the Klamath area, which straddles the Oregon border and has witnessed extraordinary demonstrations by farmers over water allocations.

In 2001, thousands of farmers staged a symbolic “bucket brigade” to protest water shortages; some of them used blowtorches to open up locked canal gates. The protests caught the attention of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who ordered water delivered to the growers the next year – a move that was blamed for causing the deaths of more than 60,000 salmon.

Now farmers again are complaining that they’re being shut out, but they say Newsom’s drought declaration would have little practical effect on that irrigation network this year, given that it’s managed entirely by the federal government.

Still, it has symbolic significance for the farmers, said Paul Simmons, the executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, and “would at minimum signal and ensure that local governments, both states and the federal government recognize there is a problem and they are all on the same page to bring to bear any resources that may be available.”

Indian tribes, fishing organizations and environmentalists, however, fear a drought declaration could be used to harm the ecosystem. They’re insisting that water must stay in the lake – and the Klamath River – to protect endangered salmon and suckers.

HOW CALIFORNIA FISH SUFFERED IN THE LAST DROUGHT

A statewide drought emergency declaration wouldn’t automatically translate into more water for farmers. 

Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that a declaration would make it easier for state officials to curtail water rights – that is, restrict Californians from pulling water out of the rivers. In many cases, it’s farmers who would have the most to lose from these curtailment orders, Obegi said.

A drought emergency could “cut both ways,” he said.

Still, environmentalists believe they have a lot more to fear from a drought emergency order.

Glen Spain, legal counsel with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said he believes farmers would try to leverage a drought emergency to persuade the State Water Resources Control Board to ease many of the environmental regulations designed to protect California water quality. The idea would be to free up supplies for agriculture “at the expense of the fish and fishing dependent industries,” Spain said.

In the last drought, the state board agreed – at the urging of the operators of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project – to ease water quality standards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the estuary that serves as the hub of the two projects’ delivery systems. 

Easing those standards meant the projects could pump more water to their farm and municipal customers. It also reduced the amount of water running its natural course through the Delta and out to the ocean, hurting the Delta’s struggling fish populations, Obegi said.

At the same time, Obegi said, the system’s health was compromised by overly-generous releases of water from Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in California, to satisfy demands from farm irrigators along the Sacramento River.

Obegi said these water releases had the effect of raising water temperatures later in the summer in the river, which is home to the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon.

Officials said only 5% of the juvenile salmon survived long enough to make it to the ocean in 2014. The next year, despite efforts to reduce water temperatures, only 3% of the juvenile salmon survived, bringing the species perilously close to extinction.

“We’re still struggling to rebuild those runs, those populations,” McManus said.

NEAR-RECORD LOW LEVELS OF RUNOFF ARE HURTING RESERVOIR LEVELS 

Environmentalists say conditions along the state’s rivers are worsening by the day. The state board last week scolded managers of the state and federal water projects for violating standards on water flows in the Delta – in effect, pumping more water to their customers than they were allowed. 

Mary Lee Knecht, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the federal project, said in an email that the agency “continues to coordinate with our partner agencies, including DWR, fishery agencies, and the State Board, on the best path forward.” 

Ted Craddock, deputy director with the Department of Water Resources, which runs the State Water Project, said in an emailed statement that “near-record low levels of runoff” are hurting reservoir levels but said the state is releasing water from Lake Oroville in order to meet water-quality standards in the Delta.

“In coordination with the U.S Bureau of Reclamation and the State Water Resources Control Board we are looking at all options to balance water deliveries, environmental requirements, and the health and safety of Californians that rely on the State Water Project,” he said.

Obegi said the two projects’ recent violations are a bad sign of what might come this summer. He said conditions are ripe for another massive salmon die-off, comparable to what happened in 2014 and 2015.

“We’re seeing a virtual repeat of that whole scenario this year,” he said.

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