Lawmakers including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Congressman and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and state Republican State leaders Bob Huff and Connie Conway – are calling on Governor Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama to address California’s dire water supply conditions by declaring a state drought emergency. The requests, made in three separate letters last week, directly respond to an announcement last month by the California Department of Water Resource that it plans to allocate just 5% of what farms and cities need for 2014.
“Such an allocation will result in the continued depletion of local groundwater resources, fallowing of thousands of acres of productive farmland, rising food costs, skyrocketing agriculture and urban water rates, and the elimination of countless jobs in our state,” wrote the signers of the letter.
Two thirds of the available water in California is located in the northern third of the state, said Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the alliance, but the majority of the state’s population and industrial activity is in the south. The state has long had a highly developed water storage and distribution system to move water to where it is most needed.
But the alliance contends that onerous environmental regulations have prevented the system from being utilized at maximum efficiency, something that the drought declaration would alleviate. That flexibility is urgently needed, she said, as effects of the situation are already making themselves felt.
“Some of our reservoirs are at the lowest levels since 1977. Last year we had lettuce at $7 a box and already it is at $23 a box,” she said.
The final picture of what water will become available is still coming into focus, she said. State officials make the final determination in late February, by which time the bulk the winter precipitation in the form of rain and snow has fallen. But it is already clear that 2014 will be an extremely dry year, Bettencourt said.
The most recent analogous crop year would be 2009, she said. Insufficient water led fallowing of fields, leading to high unemployment in farm counties.
“In 2009 we had the same scenario. We had a 90% cut in water deliveries. We saw over 500,000 acres fallowed out in five counties, and the price of tomatoes and other vegetable crops increased,” she said.
“Going into this year we expect it to be as bad or worse, with the number of acres fallowed, crops being short and hitting record unemployment again,” she said.
Altered crop balance
Bettencourt said California’s persistent water problems are already starting to alter the crop balance in the state. Growers are fallowing row crop acreages to drive their available water to tree crops to keep them alive. As they do so, they draw upon groundwater reserves, which are rapidly dwindling because of overuse and insufficient recharge because of the drought, she said.
“We are going to run into some groundwater issues as well. You have a situation in which you have too many straws tapping the same resource,” she said.
The water alliance advocates for a balanced approach to managing water in the state, taking into account the needs of the environment, urban users and agriculture. As matters stand, environmental needs take precedence, and in severe drought years those needs are topped off whereas other demands go wanting.
“I don’t think you are going to find anyone in California, either in the agricultural or urban sectors, who says that we are not going to protect the environment. But we cannot conserve our way out of this problem – a 5% water allocation is clearly untenable and will drive up the price of food, rent, construction projects, and it will take up a larger piece of every paycheck,” Bettencourt said.
Bettencourt said the drought declaration would only be a first step in a longer-term solution to more equitably balance all the competing needs for water. California’s solution to these problems will be a test case for the rest of nation and elsewhere in the world, too.
“This is going to be the defining issue for our century. It’s going to be worldwide,” she said.