[env-trinity] Two Opinions on the Drought

Tom Stokely tstokely at trinityalps.net
Wed Jun 18 14:19:42 PDT 2008

Paul H. Betancourt: Planning, more storage would have prevented this year's water shortages
The Sacramento Bee- 6/15/08
By Paul H. Betancourt - Special to The Bee 

The governor's drought declaration this month is official acknowledgment of what we have known out here in farm country since at least last fall. It is dry out here.


You could see it out there first in the rolling hills of the Coast Range and the Sierra foothills. The grass for cattle is a lot shorter than it should be. Last fall there was talk of severe cuts in water for this year. Farmworkers started to get laid off, not just for the winter season, but permanently. Farmers in our area started selling off cotton-harvesting equipment. They weren't just going to cut back on cotton plantings this year, they were cutting back permanently.


I farm with my in-laws, who have been in the area since about 1916. At VF Farms, we farm 765 acres of almonds and row crops in the Kerman and Tranquillity area of Fresno County. This year we cut our cotton acreage in half. We planted half the 640-acre ranch to wheat and half to cotton. We can't make a living on wheat, but we figured we could make the land payment in a year when we do not get our full allocation of water due to low rainfall. I didn't lay off any of the four men who work for me because I don't know how long this problem will last. 


We have a good team of men who work well together. They know our fields and our equipment. There isn't going to be much overtime and probably no bonuses this year, but they will keep their jobs this season.


Our farm should make it this year, if the well and our groundwater supply hold out. We have a well that can pump enough water, if we get 25 percent of our allotment from the federal Central Valley Project, and if we are very careful.


We have never had any water to waste. I time irrigations with a tool that measures actual plant moisture so we know what the plant needs, not just what the soil moisture is, so we water when the plants need it. We water every other row, on short runs in 12-hour sets most of the time, to be as efficient as possible with the water we do have.


But, there is an important disclaimer here – wells and ground- water are only a temporary solution. Even in good years we pump more water from the ground than is naturally replenished – and that is not sustainable. We need to have surface water – water from snowpack and rivers.


The fact is, two-thirds of California's rainfall occurs in the northern third of the state and two-thirds of the people live in the southern third of the state.


In his 1952 novel "East of Eden" John Steinbeck refers to a 30-year cycle of wet, dry and normal years. I have looked at the historic records back to the mid-1860s. 


We know in California there have been wet and dry years. We need to catch the water from the wet years and save it for the dry years – that would be worthwhile conservation.


The lesson from Hurricane Katrina is that we should have been better prepared. We don't have dramatic weather disasters like hurricanes in California. A drought is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You would think slow motion would allow us to prepare.


Redefining conservation
There are those who think we can solve all of our water problems with conservation. Of course we should be careful with all the natural resources we utilize.


I have two responses for those who believe that if we conserve the water we have developed already we will get by. First, there are not enough low-flow toilets in California to solve this problem. We have more people using more water all the time. Second, let's look at what water conservation really means. My dictionary includes "preservation from loss" in the definition of conservation.


Here are the facts: In 2006, Calif- ornia water managers released 27 million acre-feet of water to flow out to sea when they were convinced that the state's reservoirs would fill during the rainy season. That is enough water for all of California's urban and agricultural needs for a whole year. We let it run out into the ocean. What if we had conserved 10 percent of that water?#


Lloyd G. Carter: Much of California is a desert, we should live in it as such
The Sacramento Bee- 6/15/08
By Lloyd G. Carter - Special to The Bee 
 That dreaded word drought has again intruded into the California public consciousness following Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's June 4 declaration that a drought is officially under way.


Because the governor's executive order failed to declare a state of emergency or impose rationing, it appears his real motive in declaring a drought was simply to drum up more support for the nearly $12 billion water bond infrastructure measure he wants to put on the November ballot.


That plan includes a peripheral canal to funnel Northern California water around the Delta and $3.5 billion for two controversial dams. He has chosen to try to engineer our way out of the current dry spell instead of adapting to the fact most Californians live in a desert. 


The gubernatorial declaration states that 2007 was a below-normal rainfall year and that this spring was the driest spring on record in California, with total river water supplies this year 59 percent of normal. During the 1986-1992 drought, six dry years passed before Gov. Pete Wilson issued a similar declaration in 1991.


The technical definition of drought is a deficiency of "normal" precipitation over an extended period of time, usually more than one season, resulting in a shortage of water for some activity, group or environmental sector.


Drought is a temporary aberration. It differs from aridity, which is a permanent feature of low rainfall climates.


Aridity typifies the Southern California climate and has resulted in the annual transfer of enormous volumes of water from the usually wet north state to the almost-always-dry south. With 1,400 dams and thousands of miles of canals, California has always engineered solutions.


Although the governor urges conservation, tying it to his pharaonic construction plan will further polarize Northern California and Southern California over what critics call his hydro-illogical boondoggles.


At any rate, those massive public works projects, even if approved by overburdened taxpayers, are probably 15 to 20 years away from completion and of no immediate benefit.


It might be wiser for the deficit-plagued governor to focus on policy before plumbing and sort out a raft of statewide water problems, which have festered for decades and don't require billions in cash to fix.


I suggest he take the following actions:

• Demand an explanation from the State Water Resources Control Board about why current water- rights permits and contract allocations exceed available supplies by several times. This phantom supply, known as "paper water," is being used to justify more urban sprawl throughout the state. The State Water Project promises contractors 4.2 million acre-feet annually (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons) but can safely deliver only 1.2 million acre-feet.


• Ask the state water board to declare irrigation of hundreds of thousands of acres of high-selenium soils in the western San Joaquin Valley an unreasonable use of water. Retirement of all these alkali soils, which generate a pollutant-laden drainage that cannot be safely disposed, could free up more than a million acre-feet of water. Discourage planting of low-value, water-thirsty crops such as cotton.


• Demand a halt to urban waste. While some cities have excellent conservation records, others are dragging their feet. Sacramento and Fresno still sell water at a flat rate, meaning urban customers pay the same monthly bill whether they use 1 gallon or 1 million gallons.


• Be honest in educating the public that drought conditions do not exist everywhere in agriculture. Thousands of Central Valley farmers will be getting a full supply of federal water this year. Only the massive Westlands Water District, with 500 to 600 growers on 1,000 square miles, and a few other western San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts, will get reduced supplies. And they are free to purchase water on the open market. The governor's declaration will make such water transfers easier.


• Insist on reducing or halting the use of rivers and Delta drinking supplies as sewers for agricultural, municipal and industrial wastewater. Future generations will wonder why we allowed the Delta, drenched in urine-based ammonia, to literally be used as a toilet.


• Remember that agriculture still uses 80 percent of the state's river water supplies and a lot is wasted through flood irrigation and evaporation. Virtually all of Israel's agriculture is irrigated by drip systems. A new Israeli underground drip system uses 30 percent to 50 percent less water for growing rice, a major crop in the Sacramento Valley. Give growers tax breaks to convert to drip. Before fields in the western San Joaquin Valley are planted each spring, growers use large amounts of imported water to drive the soil salts down below the root zone, a water-guzzling practice known euphemistically as "pre-irrigation." This is further proof these salty lands should be retired.


• Recognize that the federal Central Valley Project has a priority system for delivering irrigation water, and Westlands has always been at the end of the bucket line. When the senior federal water districts have all received their allotments, the junior contractors, including Westlands, get what is left. Westlands growers knew this when they signed their water-delivery contracts decades ago. It's a risk they willingly assumed.


Now, Westlands is negotiating with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein for a guaranteed supply of 1 million acre-feet a year, enough for a city of 10 million. This deal would be terrible news for the Delta ecosystem.


In her 2007 book "Managing Water, Avoiding Crisis in California," Dorothy Green, a respected Los Angeles environmentalist, writes: "We can meet the future of a growing California if water is used much more efficiently, if the management of that resource is better integrated and holistic, and if land-use policies are tied to water availability."


Let us hope that when the current drought fades, Green's advice doesn't.#



Tom Stokely
Principal Planner
Trinity Co. Dept of Long Range Planning and Natural Resources
PO Box 1445
60 Glen Rd.
Weaverville, CA 96093-1445
530-623-1458, Extension 3407
FAX 623-1646
tstokely at trinityalps.net or tstokely at trinitycounty.org
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