Consensus may have reached a crescendo regarding California’s epic drought, but political partisanship raises concern over whether short-term and long-term fixes needed can ever be achieved.

Fifteen people participated in two panel discussions at the World Ag Expo Water Summit in Tulare, Calif. Their opinions on the impacts to California growers and communities ranged from “dire” to “catastrophic.”

The summit held on the last day of the World Ag Expo came just one day ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to drought-parched California.

Los Banos grower Joe Del Bosque participated in the water summit on Thursday of the Farm Show, and then the next day hosted the president at his western Merced County farm. Also touring with the president included both U.S. senators from California: Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer; U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno; California Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr., and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Bosque said the conditions he faces couldn’t be worse. He will get no surface water from the Central Valley Project. Available well water on a small part of his farm is not sufficient because of the shrinking aquifer and the salty water.

Want access to the very latest in agricultural news each day? Sign up for the Western Farm Press Daily e-mail newsletter.

President Obama met privately with several ag leaders and water managers before speaking publicly from Bosque’s farm. California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger was among the group that met privately with the President. Wenger grows almonds, walnuts corn and alfalfa on 450 acres of land in Modesto.

Wenger was pleased that the president came to California because it shines a large spotlight on California agriculture and the drought. Farm Bureau gave a letter of support to a Feinstein bill aimed at providing some help to the state.

According to Wenger, Westlands Water District and the Friant Water Authority likewise support Feinstein’s effort in the Senate because it puts the issue on the table and opens up the debate.

“We need to get something going,” Wenger said. “The current version will have to go to conference once it passes the Senate, and that’s where the discussions will take place.”

Competing bills

Two pieces of legislation currently in the Senate seek to address California’s water problems.

One of those bills is Feinstein’s California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014. Unlike a House bill authored by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford that is awaiting Senate action, the Feinstein bill does not waive any federal or state laws. Instead, the Feinstein bill includes a range of provisions that require federal agencies use existing powers to maximize water supplies, reduce project review times and ensure water is directed to users whose need is greatest.

The Feinstein bill also provides $300 million in emergency funds to be used on a range of projects to maximize water supplies for farmers, consumers and municipalities and provide economic assistance.

Valadao’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act quickly passed the House in early February mostly on party lines and awaits action in the Senate. Some say the bill is dead on arrival there and likely will not be debated.

Valadao’s bill seeks to change or repeal the most egregious sections of current law which stands in the way of moving water around California. Gov. Brown called Valadao’s bill “divisive” and “dangerous” during a brief visit to the World Ag Expo in Tulare.

Wenger seemed to agree with that language, saying the House bill “throws bombs” and does not have the widespread support to begin the momentum needed to carry the bill.

“You’ve got to get people on board supporting it first,” Wenger said.

As for the money Obama brought with him to help growers ravaged by the drought, Wenger is appreciative, but says the long-term approach still needs to be significant water storage. That sentiment was echoed during the Water Summit in Tulare.

“In the long term we need to increase our water storage and adapt it to the likelihood that we will see less snow pack and more rainfall in the future,” said Wenger.

Grower panel

The grower panel, which featured prominent agricultural representatives like John Harris, owner of Harris Ranch near Coalinga; Mark Watte, a Tulare-area grower and past chairman of the World Ag Expo; Manuel Cunha, farmer and president of the Nisei Farmers League, and Del Bosque, also featured local political representatives including Orange Cove Mayor Gabriel Jimenez, Mendota Mayor Robert Silva, and Fresno County Supervisor and farmer Phil Larson.

That segment of the summit talked about the drought’s effects on cities and farms. In short, California farms are drying up and with them the jobs that support those farms. A second panel discussion tackled how policy makers and water managers are dealing with the drought and the regulatory hurdles they face.

Both mayors talked about how their cities are being devastated by the drought as jobs are lost and unemployment climbs to near 50 percent in some communities.

“When you cut off the water supply to the west side farmers, it in turn affects us,” Silva said.

“That’s why we had 45 percent unemployment in 2009, the highest in California and the nation.”

Harris farms about 14,000 acres in western Fresno County. He said that farmworkers are already suffering because lettuce commonly grown in the winter months in the San Joaquin Valley was not planted because of the drought.

“We should have tens of thousands of acres of lettuce, which is a major payroll generator in the fall and spring,” he said.

Silva’s community sits in the Westlands Water District, which employs many of its residents via the farming operations, packing sheds and transportation companies that support agriculture in the region.

Mendota’s December unemployment rate was already 34 percent, which is above its typical rate for that time of the year of 25 percent to 29 percent. Silva believes it will hit 50 percent this summer. There’s an irony in all of this, Silva said. While the region is one of the richest in the world for agricultural production, residents will be forced to stand in line for food hand-outs rather than working in the fields to harvest that food.

Mendota is a tiny western Fresno County community that became ‘ground-zero’ in 2009 when biological opinions shut off Delta pumps and curbed water flows to the region. That set the stage for growers to fallow more farmland and the long food lines more common in third-world countries where relief efforts are under way.

“People cannot believe that this situation exists in California, in the richest area in the world,” Silva said.

Orange Cove, which is on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, is in a similar situation. Residents there rely solely on surface water from the Friant-Kern Canal (CVP water) because wells in the region are too tainted with nitrates to be used as drinking water.

Orange Cove is home to several citrus packing sheds and the region home to a considerable amount of citrus groves.

For elected leaders like Larson, the loss in sales tax revenue and the inability for growers to pay their property taxes because fallowed land does not produce an income, are also critical issues to be considered. Issues of erosion and air pollution from blowing dust are others.

“When farmers lose water and they don’t farm; they don’t buy things,” Larson said. “That doesn’t count the lost sales tax revenue that does not come into the county and the state.”

For decades California growers have enjoyed access to surface irrigation water through canals and ditches. Those canals helped keep underground aquifers from being depleted by reducing the need for pumping. All that has changed.

Watte, who farms several thousand acres of row crops and pistachios in the Tulare area with his brother Brian, is in his second year of no surface water allocation from the Tulare Irrigation District. Like his neighbors, Watte must rely upon wells for irrigation water. Many of those wells are going dry and the aquifer is shrinking as growers continue to pump from the basin.

The heavy pumping schedule has backed up well companies to the point that it is months before growers can get a crew out to sink a new well or even make repairs. Cost of a new well is said to be at least $250,000. Further exacerbating issues is the fact residents in the area and local dairies compete for the same well water and well companies.

Storage

The common theme of the Water Summit and other discussions in California was the need for more water storage. While Wenger said storage was addressed in private meetings with the President, Obama’s public statement prior to leaving the Central Valley was a lecture on climate change peppered with the announcement of aid money.

Proposals have been made for an off-stream storage site in Colusa and Glenn counties called Sites Reservoir, and a separate project on the San Joaquin River at the head of Millerton Lake called Temperance Flat Dam. Combined the two projects would add as much as 3.1 million acre feet of additional water storage in California. Other proposals include raising Shasta Dam; an environmental impact statement has been written and is currently going through the public process. The possibility of increasing off-stream storage at San Luis Reservoir has also been brought up.

While the cost of these projects ranges in the hundreds of millions of dollars to more than $1 billion each, combined they represent only about 10 percent of the total cost state officials want to spend on a high speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Still, a bigger hurdle to cross for water storage projects is the environmental restrictions and threats of costly lawsuits to litigate such projects.

“They’ll set aside the regulations to build a football stadium in southern California; how about setting them aside to build a dam?” Watte said.