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Farmers Rally To Improve Western Water Infrastructure

posted on June 22, 2012

Every year, approximately 7.4 million acre feet of water, about 2.4 trillion gallons, flows from the Sierra Nevada Mountains through various canals and waterways into California’s Central Valley. While some is diverted to urban areas, nearly 70 percent gives life to fruits and vegetables that eventually make it to tables across the United States.

Farmers in the Central Valley, a region 40 miles wide and more than 400 miles long, rely on the constant flow of water to make a living but in 2009, the mountain snowpack was 60 percent below normal. As water levels fell, provisions in the Federal Endangered Species Act were set in motion to protect native salmon and delta smelt. Water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was restricted and fewer acres were planted in the San Joaquin Valley below. Thousands of agricultural workers lost their jobs and unemployment soared over 40 percent in some communities. Growers across the Central Valley lost billions in revenue all in hopes of saving the three-inch long delta smelt.

Joe Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque: “…the way I see the Endangered Species Act, I see a law that was well intended to help - help the ecosystems and that is fine.  But the Endangered Species Act has no consideration for human impact.  So if it puts me out of business to save the Delta smelt, the Endangered Species Act doesn't care.  It only wants to save the species at any cost.  And there is something wrong with that.”

Joe Del Bosque is a second generation farmer from Firebaugh, California in the San Joaquin Valley. Del Bosque idled more than a third of his 2,200 acres during the drought, diverting precious water from vine-ripened fruits and vegetables to his fruit and nut trees.

Joe Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque: “We have had those cut backs for - for 20 years here in agriculture.  So we understand them and we've kind of learned to roll with the punches.  It is not easy when - if we had 2009 again in 2010 I may not be standing here.  Because we could roll through one year but not through two. 

Even before the drought of 2009, a coalition of California growers and agricultural workers realized a fight over water rights was brewing and formed the Latino Water Coalition.  Ultimately, the group played an integral role in getting a measure through the California legislature to improve the Golden State’s aging water infrastructure.

Manuel Cunha is president of the Nisei Farmers League, a farmer advocacy group based in the San Joaquin Valley. The Nisei Farmers League is a member of the Coalition.

Manuel Cunha, Nisei Farmers League: “…if you don't start now it is going to take 10 to 12 years to do --- review and EIRs, an Environmental Impact Reports and lawsuits and lawsuits and everything else that goes along with that.  But I would hope that other states realize that they can get out in front of this thing ahead with their states rather than waiting until the catastrophes that are occurring in this state. This is the 900 pound gorilla.  …we are continually procrastinating because of politics."

In 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved a $14.1 billion measure that included provisions to repair, improve and expand California’s canals and reservoirs. Known as the water bond, the legislation was set to go on the 2010 ballot for approval by the people of California. But lackluster support and an operating budget of $1.4 trillion found the governor asking for a delay until 2012.

Over the following two years, water levels rebounded but flow restrictions remained and interest by those living in more urban parts of the state waned.

Currently, reservoirs in California are at 110 percent of normal capacity. But a great deal of the water will never reach California farm fields due to the increased numbers of endangered fish near pumping station intakes. And even if the water were to make it downstream, aging infrastructure and capacity issues would prevent long term storage.

The higher levels were of no help to those Valley farmers who have seen their water allotments slashed by as much as 90 percent. While more water was made available last April it was too little too late.

Joe Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque: “You know we make our plans in the fall like in November.  And you know we are - actually preparing ... to plant in the spring by February or March.  We didn't get our first allocation until; I think it was almost April. And then - and then we didn't get the next ten percent more until April.”

But the problem remains of how to get and keep fresh water in the “nation’s salad bowl.” The combination of a 50-year old infrastructure and demand from 37 million citizens has placed a huge burden on the state’s water supply.

California Governor Jerry Brown stated to farmers in January he was in favor of dropping the water bond from the ballot to focus on state income and sales tax issues. Despite the political hint, the California legislature has chosen to leave the bond on the ballot.

According to a spokesman for Speaker of the California Assembly John Perez, the water bond will remain on the ballot and Assembly leadership is consulting with the governor on how to proceed. Despite numerous requests by Market to Market, Governor Brown refused to comment on the issue.

A poll by the nonpartisan think tank Public Policy Institute of California found 51 percent of Californians are in favor of the water bond while 34 percent oppose the measure.

Joe Del Bosque: We farmers have been facing water reductions for 20 years.  So we understand that.  We know what it is like when they turn the tap off to us.  People in Los Angeles and San Diego that have never had the tap turned off.  The day that happens or the day that they open it and a little dribble comes out, it is going to be a disaster.  They will say what happened?  Why didn't somebody do something about this?  But these things don't happen overnight."

Even if water allocations return to 100 percent, getting the fruits and vegetables out of the field remains a problem for Central Valley farmers. As immigration regulations have been tightened over the past few years, the number of people willing to pick, process and pack fruits and vegetables have declined.

Next week, Market to Market will examine the impact of immigration reform on California Farmers.

For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.

Tags: California farmers water bond water shortage


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