The Western Plant Health Association hosted a regulatory conference in late August in downtown Sacramento that addressed many of the pressing issues facing California agriculture. Several of the speakers were high-ranking officials of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), the state’s Water Resources Control Board and leaders of Ag commodity groups, including the Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and the California Strawberry Commission.

The top two topics of the day-and-a-half program were the current conditions of water supplies and water and air quality in California.

Charlie Hoppin, chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board, a straight-talker who is a partner in farming operations in Yolo and Sutter counties, was quick to point out that he is frustrated with the lack of progress to improve water supplies in California. Hoppin was appointed to his position in March by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Let’s be clear: Health and human services are always going to trump water rights regardless of whatever the issues are,” he told the 130-plus audience gathered inside the Hyatt Regency on Aug. 26. He said that infrastructure is sorely lacking in California, such as a workable water conveyance system, water recycling measures and additional water storage facilities.

Hoppin said that he was discouraged and concerned about a lack of water plan for the Delta, saying California needs a comprehensive package to meet the water needs of tomorrow. He pointed out that if we start now it will take at least 10 to 12 years before the improvements will be realized.

He said he wasn’t sure if anything could be done to save the Delta smelt. “It’s such a very delicate species, but I remain hopeful that something can be done to save the smelt and other endangered fish species in the Delta.”

Hoppin said that he is fully aware of the challenges and hurdles he is facing to overcome the deteriorating water system in the Delta. He is also facing severe budget constraints because of the current recession and said he doubts that California “can bond” itself and afford the type of remedies to correct the water shortage problem “and that’s kind of scary.”

Hoppin added: “I don’t know how you save the San Joaquin Valley. I know there’s an injustice going on down there and I certainly will try everything I can to change that.”

Keeping on the subject of water quantity and supplies in California, Earl Williams, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association, said that 2009 has been the year that water shortages finally caught up with the cotton industry. He noted that western Fresno County especially has been hard hit.

He said in its heyday, the cotton business from 1976 until 1987 enjoyed more than a million acres of planted cotton throughout California. Today that number is less than 300,000. He said in 1966 there were 299 cotton gins in California, compared with only 34 gins today.

Williams noted that water shortages are not the only reason for the severe reduction in cotton crops in California.

He said when the California Aqueduct came on line in 1966 “a lot of land opened up.” Cropping options expanded for all sorts of different commodities to be grown in California’s Central Valley and that diversification – along with thriving dairy operations – led to a slow but constant reduction in cotton crops as the net return per acre dropped.

“We are now a small player,” said Williams, a native from Arkansas who still has a heavy Southern accent in his words. “But we are still proud.” He realizes that water shortages are cyclical in nature, confidently stating that once the current crisis turns around “we’ll be back in business.” However, he lamented that cotton crops in California will never approach the million-plus acreage of bygone years.

He noted that a strengthened Endangered Species Act, coupled with diverse crop competition, a water shortage, contracted water deliveries, deteriorating water infrastructure and a poor economy, have all contributed to a doomsday scenario for the California cotton industry. “We got to get this water thing solved,” he concluded.

Rick Tomlinson, government affairs director for the California Strawberry Commission, said that alternative fumigants using drip systems in Ventura County – as substitutes for methyl bromide which is being phased out – haven’t been effective.

“We are experiencing a 10 percent crop failure.”

He told the crowd that growers are eagerly awaiting the possible state approval of a more effective substitute in methyl iodide. DPR is currently evaluating the efficacy and safety of methyl iodide and will be holding public meetings to gather scientific opinions about the chemical and to gauge the public’s reaction to using it as a replacement.

Tomlinson wrapped up by saying if you eliminated all the farm fumigants in Ventura County it would only account for less than a 1-percent reduction in air contaminants from the agricultural sector and that a lot of harm will be done to growers “with no benefit to the environment or health concerns.”

He called the effort to reduce volatile organic compounds (that contribute to poor air quality) in Ventura County simply a “bean counter exercise” that will needlessly exhaust staff time and state resources. “This issue is going to be around a while and will result in more lawsuits.”