California Forum

Farms threatened, basic water principles violated

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Drought-stressed farmers on the west side of California’s Central Valley have received a lot of congressional and presidential attention lately. Because we farm and ranch on the west side of the Valley, this attention means a lot to us, but not in the way one might think.

My wife’s and my ranch is large, about 3,700 acres, and we raise wine grapes, alfalfa, sheep and lambs, and small grains – wheat and barley. Our farm, however, is not in the southern part of the Valley where farms are served by the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Rather, we are on the western bank of the Sacramento River farther north but just south of Rio Vista. We farm in the region from where water is taken to transport south.

For those who are concerned about providing relief and assistance to California farmers, there must be a realization that the west side farmers in the southern Central Valley are not the only farmers in the state threatened by drought. Those of us who farm in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are suffering, just as are our colleagues to the south. In our case, salinity in the Sacramento River has increased so dramatically over the past six months that windows of opportunity to irrigate our vineyard have disappeared or have been limited to perhaps four hours per day. In past years we had good water quality 24 hours per day. The recent rainstorms have provided some short term-relief, but we will need medium- and long-term relief.

The two federal remedies presented so far for providing drought relief have been legislation proposed in the U.S. House by several southern Valley representatives – Reps. David Valadao, Kevin McCarthy and Devin Nunes, with the support of House Speaker John Boehner – and Senate legislation presented by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer with the backing of President Barack Obama.

The proposals differ greatly but also have commonalities.

The House bill would modify water transfer contracts and water rights legislation and overturn years of environmental protection to facilitate water transfers from water sources in the north to the two great water projects for the use of southern farmers and municipalities. It also supports constructing more storage to relieve future drought.

The Senate bill would protect the environmental provisions of past legislation and court action, as well as provide funding for water storage, conservation and other means of collecting and storing water. It, however, in more subtle ways, also provides for facilitating the transfer of water from our region to the two water projects for the use of southern farmers and municipalities.

To our way of thinking, both pieces of legislation violate the basic principles on which our water system is based.

Access to our water is based on “entitlements” derived from agreements developed to distribute water from the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Put simply, access to water by southern farmers and cities from the Delta is based on the notion that they are entitled to any excess water not necessary for local needs in the north. They do not have inherent or primary rights in any way equivalent to our pre-1914 riparian rights. This means that in a crisis our senior or primary rights must be taken into account first to ensure our needs are met and to balance these against their junior or secondary rights.

We emphasize that this principle pertains in general to nearly all the ranches and farms in our highly productive agricultural region in and around the Delta. It is the principle upon which the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project were constructed.

For us, if either of the legislative proposals for drought relief of the southern Valley is implemented as written, over the course of the year salinity levels in the Delta will rise to levels where we will not be able to sustain our wine grape or alfalfa production.

The House bill is blatant in its intent to simply facilitate water transfers by removing legal impediments put in place to protect the northern environment and water rights. The Senate proposal mandates that State Water Project and Central Valley Project water supplies be given precedence over local supplies by instructing water managers to maintain the flow of water to the projects’ pumping station even to the extent of constructing temporary barriers and operable gates to prevent flows traveling away from the pumps. That is, water will be prevented from flowing to our ranch and ranches nearby, and diverted to ranches and farms hundreds of miles away.

Both pieces of legislation are anathema. Neither ensures that our rights are preserved or that efforts to help the southern farmers be based on the premise of protecting rights of northern farmers. Both bills turn on their heads the agreements and understandings and the principles of rights and responsibilities upon which the California water system has been based for at least 60 years.

It is unfortunate that over the 50 or 60 so years that the water projects have been functioning, some west side and southern growers have mistakenly overinvested in unsustainable expansion, both in terms of the environment and in terms of the long-term availability of water. Much land has been degraded by their irrigation practices. Water aquifers have been depleted and destroyed by bad management, and farms and cropping systems expanded beyond the capacity to function in times of severe drought.

In part, this has been due to past political decisions and rulings that have encouraged some in the farm community to believe that they can persuade our governments to protect them from the consequences of unsustainable practices. If our governments now do so again, they will greatly damage those of us in the north from whom water rights would be usurped. The consequences would be calamitous to our farming region and the large regional economy.

As active members in the California agricultural community, Jeannie and I, and many of our neighbors, share the stresses caused by the drought and are more than willing to work with responsible farmers and our governments to work out ways to appropriately manage water in this time of scarcity. But we cannot do this if our well-established rights are not protected in legislation and our interests not respected.

The 19th and early 20th century idea of unfettered expansion is no longer appropriate to the 21st century. It has generated innumerable battles over water rights and land use and has led to our current fight over a valuable and limited resource. Unless there are dramatic revisions to the proposed legislation so that our regional agriculture is protected and supported, Jeannie and I, and we know many of our neighbors, will actively oppose and object to policies and principles that threaten to destroy our future.