It was standing room only during Congressman Devin Nunes’ Water Forum August 31 at the International Agri-Center. More than 400 people sat at attention while Nunes outlined a grim future for agriculture if Central Valley legislators don’t act together to change federal laws affecting the California water conveyance system.
Nunes told the crowd on several occasions, “Hold your local representatives and legislators accountable. Saying they only support increased water storage is a cop out.”
Nunes explained that three main laws are preventing the Valley farmers from getting their allotted water from the Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP). Those three laws are the Endangered Species Act, the San Joaquin River Settlement and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.
The CVP and the SWP make up California’s water infrastructure that conveys water from the Sacramento Bay Delta to the Central Valley and Los Angeles. Millerton Lake and the Friant Kern Canal are also part of the Central Valley Project .
Congressman Nunes is a staunch supporter of building Temperance Flat Dam, but added that without modifications to the San Joaquin River Settlement the dam won’t produce one drop of water for Valley farmers. The extra stored water will be used to revive the river and reintroduce a population of salmon that was abundant in the river before Friant Dam was built.
Exacerbating the farmers’ situation is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) that was passed in 2014. The goal of SGMA is for farmers to only pump the amount of water that can be replaced. If the irrigation districts and cities of the eight sub-basins of the San Joaquin Valley do not have a plan by 2020 on how they are going to achieve sustainability, the state might take over all groundwater pumping. Even though the Department of Water Resources estimates that the Central Valley’s ground water is over drafted by 1.5 – 2 million acre-feet, the Valley is told it has to achieve sustainability by 2040.
The catch-22 is, if farmers do not get their allocated surface water from the CVP and SWP, they have to pump groundwater to keep their crops alive–which creates more overdraft. The reliability of surface water is key to ground water sustainability. Fortunately, SGMA recognizes the central role of surface water in each sub basin’s plan to achieve ground water sustainability. David Orth, of North Friant Alliance, implored the crowd to keep the conversation focused on that concept.
Nunes warned the audience, “As you know, California is on the verge of disaster. Our economy depends on the ability to move water from the state’s northern reaches to the south via the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. This infrastructure serves more than three million acres of farmland and over 25 million people. However, due to a lack of political leadership, the state is not making the investments needed to keep these projects fully operational.
Furthermore, extreme environmental regulations have severely restricted our water supply under the Endangered Species Act. Consequently, we are facing catastrophic water supply shortages – in other words, we are experiencing a regulatory drought.”
Nunes’ solution is to change the three federal laws aforementioned and to increase water storage in Shasta Dam, expand San Luis and Los Vaqueros Reservoirs and build Temperance and Sites Dams. He and Congressman David Valadao, who was part of the panel fielding questions after the forum, have introduced water bills in congress to fix California’s water problems, but their bills never get past house and senate negotiations.
Though both congressmen acknowledge the drought, Nunes says that California’s water infrastructure was built to withstand a five-year drought, and that what we are experiencing now is what he refers to as a “Drought by Design.”
Nunes believes that the five-county region including Madera, Fresno, Kings, Kern, and Tulare need to have a united agenda to avoid further idling of farmland. “All local agricultural groups and water districts should require elected officials to pledge their support for these core policies:
Reform the ESA through federal legislation to return pumping of Sacramento Bay Delta water to historic pre-1992 levels. Reform the CVPIA through federal legislation to restore 1.4 Million acre -feet of water that is now going to the environment or flushed out to the ocean, and fix the San Joaquin River Settlement through federal legislation to restore additional confiscated water taken to revive the San Joaquin River.”
Nunes says that if these steps were taken it would allow farming on all productive land and bring water tables into balance, securing 2.5 million acre feet of water.
Because of the “Drought by Design” 100,000 acres have already been idled in the Westland Water District. Nunes says that an additional one million acres of farmland will be retired in the five-county region if the federal water laws are not changed. That translates into one third of the current farmland in the five-county region out of production.
“If you are not for reforming water laws you are for idling farm land,” declared Nunes.
After the presentation by Nunes, and a presentation by David Orth on SGMA, a panel of six water experts gave a short presentation and answered the crowds’ questions.
Nunes said that, “We only have 10% of the states’ population and if we don’t stand up for ourselves then no one else will. You have to get your message out.”
Cole Upton, the only farmer on the panel who represented farmers in the San Joaquin River Settlement in 2006 said, “We need other people to speak up. Everyone is tired of hearing from the same people.”
Another question aimed at the panel was, “What will be the first crops to go?”
Nunes said that depends on what the farmer is growing and the market. Upton said that the first crops to go will be the row crops and the water will be saved for the permanent trees. He warned that one arm of the government is trying to control the surface water and now they want to control the ground water.
“We need to control our own destiny as much as possible and not hand over control to the state. Upton said that we are in a war and we have been in a war for 25 years. Environmentalists are after us and “generations of families are moving out of the area.”