Draining the Delta Will Not Fix California's Drought

California’s drought is affecting everyone – cities, farmers, and our environment are all suffering from lack of water.  We all eat food, we all depend on our cities to sustain California’s vibrant culture and economy, and we all rely on a healthy environment to provide clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and an escape from our hectic lives.  That’s why we need to find solutions together.

But let’s be clear: Despite what some elected official will be claiming at a field hearing this week, further draining the Bay-Delta estuary is not a solution to the drought.  Protections for Delta fisheries have barely affected water supplies this year, and those protections are protecting far more than a single species. They’re about keeping the Delta fresh enough that its water is useable for drinking and farming.  They’re about protecting livelihoods and a larger ecological and economic system.  That includes jobs for fishermen and farmers alike, which is why fishing and Delta farming communities support protecting the Delta.

Instead of making this a political wedge in their continuing campaign to pit farmers against fishermen, Delta farmers against San Joaquin Valley farmers, and farmers against the drinking water needs of cities, we need our politicians to advance long-term solutions that California voters have clearly stated they want.  Here are the facts:

The drought is to blame for the lack of water. 

  • No protections for the much-maligned delta smelt have been triggered this year (as in zero, nada, zilch) or any time since early 2013.  As deputy general manager of Westlands Water District, Jason Peltier, recently recognized:  “This is all about rain.”
  • The current protections for delta smelt have been in place since 2008.  Since then, farm profits in California have nearly doubled, from $8 billion in 2008 to $16 billion in 2012.  And California’s 80,500 farms and ranches received a record-breaking $44.7 billion for their output in 2012. 

The drought is a statewide crisis, not a problem confined to the Central Valley

  • Farmers in the Delta are suffering in the drought due to the increased salinity in their water supplies from low river flows – salinity that protections for Delta fisheries and water quality help repel.  These farmers strongly oppose the Nunes/Valadao bill and attempts to waive environmental protections in the Delta, explaining that the approach simply tries to solve the problems of San Joaquin Valley farmers on the backs of northern farmers.   
  • Cattle ranchers are suffering across the state, especially organic growers and those that rely on grass pastures that haven’t provided an adequate source of feed this year, like many in northern California who do not rely on imported water from the Delta. 

We can take steps to make our farms more drought resilient

  • The solutions for agriculture in coping with drought are similar to the solutions that cities around California have begun to successfully implement.    This allows water users of all stripes to be more resilient to the vagaries of drought and climate change.  Here are a few examples where this approach is being adopted in interesting ways in agricultural communities around the state:
  • Diversifying water supplies so that farms are less dependent on a single source of water: Avocado growers in San Diego’s north county are working with local water suppliers to expand the use of recycled water on irrigated land, using funds from the recent urgency drought legislation providing nearly $700 million in funds for this and similar projects.
  • Reducing demand through improved efficiency: Farmers in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District around Manteca have adopted water saving technology and techniques that allow them to grow 30 percent more food with 30 percent less water.  While almost one half of California farmers still use flood and gravity irrigation systems that, as Newsweek put it, “would be recognizable to farmers in Sumer (now Iraq) 7,000 years ago,” others like some within the South San Joaquin Irrigation District have invested in an irrigation system that replaces flooding with concentrated watering around crops that automatically shuts off when the soil reaches a certain moisture level. 
  • Cleaning up contaminated water for reuse:  A solar-powered desalination facility is cleaning up contaminated irrigation water that would otherwise be too salty for use in the Panoche Irrigation District near Firebaugh in Fresno County.

To be sure, many farmers – like some cities and much of California’s treasured rivers and water bodies  – will be adversely impacted by the drought.  The Executive Director of the California Farm Water Coalition reports that farmers intend to idle approximately 6% (or 500,000 acres) of the state’s total land in irrigated agricultural production.  But those impacts are not due to protections for threatened and endangered fish. And the solution cannot be found in taking more water that just doesn’t exist. 

At a time when we cannot afford to let a drop go to waste, we need to come together to support investments in more efficient on-farm water use, better groundwater management, and more water re-use.  These steps will maintain essential water uses today and provide more resilient supplies for cities and farms tomorrow.