Monday, February 17, 2014

Tough Choices Need to be Made in California

President Obama visited California last week appearing in Fresno, California in the heart of California’s agricultural central valley. California produces almost 18 % of all U. S. crops and 7 % of livestock and livestock products (by revenue). In addition, California produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, several of the crops are currently only grown in California. In the central valley of California three crops a year can be grown and crop production is only limited by the amount of water delivered for irrigation. To make up shortfalls in annual water allocations farmers have for generations pumped groundwater- unsustainably. So much water has been pumped that the land above the aquifer in the central valley has subsided and can never recover. The water level in these aquifers has fallen hundreds of feet in the past few generations. Nonetheless farmers continue to plant almond trees and fruit trees that require year round irrigation in wet years and dry years.

After viewing the impact of the worst drought since the 1970’s on the community the President gave a speech where he called for the creation of a $1 billion climate change fund to research the projected effects of climate change and helping Americans prepare with new technology and infrastructure. That is unlikely to increase rainfall in California which already has the largest water storage and transportation system in the world. With 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs, in an “average” year the system captures enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to the almost 38 million residents of the state. Even with all this water management California is at the limit of their water resources, and without enough rain and snow in the Sierra Mountains there is simply not enough water.

In the meantime, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency and called for voluntarily water conservation, and is using the drought crisis to move forward a proposal to drill two 35 mile, highway-sized water tunnels beneath the California Delta. This project is estimated to cost at least $25 billion (though the Bay Bridge ended up costing multiples of the original estimate) and California has struggled with multibillion dollar budget deficits in recent years, saved by drastic cuts by Governor Brown and a surge in IPO (initial public offering) and technology and other capital gains. The water tunnel plan is opposed by environmentalists who say it will all but destroy Delta estuary and the agricultural community is reported to be divided on the water tunnels.

Environmentalists say the tunnel project would suck more water from the already fragile delta, the hub of the state's water-delivery system. Critics of the proposal say it would further harm the delta's fisheries, increase the cost of water and devastate the agricultural economy by lowering river levels and allowing salt water from the San Francisco Bay to invade. In addition, these tunnels would not sure up the aging infrastructure of the existing water infrastructure.

After three years of below-normal rainfall, California looks to be facing its most severe drought in decades and needs to face some harsh water truths. Neither studying climate, moderating greenhouse gases change or by passing the Delta add more water to California. Something fundamental has to change. To change the fundamental water equation in California where agriculture uses between 75%-80% of water the Pacific Institute who has studied this issue extensively recommends that of 1.3 million acres of impaired lands in the Central Valley be removed from irrigation and agricultural use. This land which is already impaired represents less than 5% of the agricultural land in California, but would save 3.9 million acre-feet of water per year, while also reducing polluted surface water runoff and impacts to groundwater. This water savings represents 9% of the water used in California and is equal to two thirds of the total water used for urban residential use.

Removing these lands from agricultural production is not going to happen without government action and disruption of lives. Something similar has happened in Canada. As reported in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, the fishing industry in Newfoundland has been disappearing for a quarter of a century. In the late 1980s, the industry employed around 13% of the province's workers. Today the fish industry employs only 3% of the province’s workers. Over fishing and poor ecological management caused the fish stocks plummet and the Canadian government put a moratorium on cod fishing about 20 years ago. Despite the moratorium on fishing, the cod population has not recovered and the way of life for those fishing communities is gone. According to the provincial government about 28,000 people relocated between 1954 and 1975 for better jobs and lives.

Sixty years ago, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador began offering its shrinking communities money to close down and move on to eliminate the need to provide utilities and community services to the shrinking and dying towns. After a nearly four-decade lull, the number of communities seeking resettlement has picked up, as the older generation fades and the government has raised the value of its offers. Though ending a way of life, is sad, the cod stocks could no longer support these communities or their way of life, through mismanagement and lack of planning. The water in California can no longer support all the farm communities every year.

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