California’s three-year natural drought is just one factor contributing to the state’s water crisis, according to Northern California farmer Charlie Hoppin of Yuba City.

It may be the easiest to “fix.”

The others are tougher because they are political: the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Endangered Species Act, and the lack of water storage in the state.

Hoppin understands the factors contributing to California’s current water crisis since he is the chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board. He was appointed chairman in March.

Hoppin’s family farms 3,200 acres in Sutter and Yolo counties. Most of it is rice. The rest is fresh market melons, walnuts, small grains and oilseed crops. Hoppin’s water board appointment was a hard fought victory for agriculture to place a farmer on this critical agency board.

However, in updating the state water situation at the annual California Cotton Growers Association at Coalinga, Calif., he said the crisis is no agricultural issue alone, but one affecting the entire state.

“If things do not get better, the state’s multi-billion dollar economy will be in jeopardy,” says Hoppin. Already, estimated losses tied to a lack of water range from $3 billion to $5 billion.

Hoppin admitted to his fellow farmers, who labor south of the Delta, that Northern California agriculture is in far better shape for water this year than the San Joaquin Valley. However, he must compete for water with critters protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“ESA takes 30 percent to 40 percent of my farm’s water right off the top,” Hoppin points out. Most farmers want the ESA basically tossed out, but the political reality is that that is not likely to happen.

Hoppin says amending ESA to provide “a little latitude” in its enforcement to allow regulators to use “common sense” in dealing with individual ESA species would alleviate some of the water issues tied to the federal law.

“You cannot just kill off endangered species,” he adds.

The most commonly mentioned solution to the state water crisis is to build more reservoirs. “Some say that is too expensive. It is not too expensive if the lack of storage threatens the state’s economy,” Hoppin says.

California’s current water capture, conveyance and storage network was built to supply water to 20 million people. California’s current population is 37 million.

Hoppin says 1 million acre feet of water above what is necessary for Delta outflow is “squandered” annually because there is not any place to store it.

The concept of a canal around the Delta to transfer water more efficiently from the north to the south is gaining political traction as California’s drought worsens. The last time such a concept was proposed, California voters turned down a peripheral canal.

Water experts have identified areas where channel work may improve flow. Hoppin tossed out the idea of a dual conveyance system where water would flow around Delta pumps during high flow years and through pumps in low flow years.

“The water issue is not so much the lack of water, but the lack of conveyance,” he said. Improving conveyance is part of several water bond issues now circulating in the Legislature.

Improving conveyance is just part of the Delta’s problem. Hoppin also points out that without work soon on the Delta, it will begin to crumble. This would not only cause flooding, but jeopardize the movement of water through the Delta from Northern California to Southern California.

Combining the state and federal water projects into one management would also provide more latitude in managing the state’s water resources. This is another idea that has been floating around for awhile, but one buying out the other would create a huge drain on already struggling state and federal economies.

Obviously, a higher than normal moisture year would mitigate drought conditions, but a growing population and expanding agriculture only compound the growing water crisis.

Hoppin says people often compare the current drought to 1991. It is far more critical now, since 9 million more people have moved into the state since than and there are 400,000 acres more to irrigate.

Hoppin says crop loss due to a lack of water is a small part of the price California is paying, citing the loss of capital and the human impact of a dwindling water supply.

The state water crisis may only be challenged by the condition of the California cotton industry. California cotton acreage this season may be only 150,000 to 170,000 acres, the lowest since the 1920s, according to association President Earl Williams.

Williams reported to the membership that there is “tremendous pressure” on the infrastructure of the industry with the reduced acreage that will fall this year from the 270,000 acres planted last season.

It was a good crop from last season, reports Williams, with short staple cotton yielding 1,500 pounds per acre and Pima 1,300. Quality also was excellent. However, it was not good enough to stave off another acreage decline this season.

Cotton acreage is continually challenged by low market prices and competition for water and from other, more profitable crops.

The warehousing and ginning infrastructure is bolstered somewhat by strong cotton seed prices. Pima cotton also is anchoring the industry. There have been predictions that short staple/Acala cotton will only account for 50,000 acres this season.

Williams continues to predict the industry will rebound to the 300,000-acre level.

“It is important to maintain the infrastructure for the time it will come back,” Williams adds.

There are some who are predicting the acreage decline will not be as great as earlier predicted as growers switch from forage crops to cotton since the dairy industry is struggling financially.

email: hcline@farmpress.com