As California’s Drought Worsens, the Biden Administration Cuts Water Supplies and Farmers Struggle to Compensate

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The impacts of California’s deepening drought hit home for Central Valley farmers earlier this week, when federal officials announced they didn’t have enough water to supply many of their agricultural customers. Urban users south of San Francisco in Santa Clara County saw their normal water deliveries cut in half.

California ships water to cities and farms through a combination of state and federal programs that oversee a complex network of hundreds of miles of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts throughout the state. 

Farmers in the state’s richest agricultural valley have long relied on water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s massive Central Valley Project (CVP) for irrigation, especially in the drier southern reaches of the valley. The CVP stretches some 400 miles from the Trinity Dam, about 125 miles south of the Oregon border, to Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The bureau manages 9 million acre-feet of water—imagine roughly 9 million football fields covered with a foot of water—most of which is used to irrigate about a third of the state’s farmland.

Bureau of Reclamation officials determine water allocations based on estimates of how much is available for deliveries, which in turn depends on current reservoir levels, as well as precipitation and the Sierra Nevada snowpack that replenishes rivers with meltwater. Snowpack accounts for nearly a third of the state’s water supply.

Federal officials had set initial water allocations in February, when they noted that a few heavy rainstorms failed to make up for two extremely dry winters in a row. Making matters worse, snowpack had reached little more than 50 percent of the seasonal average. At that time, farmers were allotted 5 percent of their contracted water supplies. In March, the bureau froze deliveries to farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta “until further notice,” citing ongoing dry conditions.

Now, the bureau has cut allocations for farmers both south and north of the delta to zero. The latest cuts come as the state grapples with the driest year in more than four decades for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Basin, the hub of the state’s water supply. 

“The drought is turning out to be even more severe than people were anticipating a month or two ago because this spring was really dry,” said Ellen Hanak, vice president and director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center.

“Usually, you get a bit of help with some late spring storms, and we didn’t,” Hanak said. “Plus, it’s been dry and warm, so the snowpack just kind of disappeared.”

Some agricultural contractors, in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, are not affected by the bureau’s cuts, because they already had water rights before the federal government constructed the CVP in the 1930s. 

“In order for the CVP to build the infrastructure and develop the projects, they made special arrangements with the people who had preexisting water rights,” Hanak said. 

Those groups with the most senior water rights still have 75 percent of their contracted deliveries, she said. 

Still, “agriculture is being hit really hard,” Hanak said. “The levels of deliveries are down pretty much to what they were at the height of the last drought.”

The Westlands Water District, which saw its water deliveries cut to zero three years into the historic 2012 to 2016 drought, faces the same situation now. 

The district has long been at the center of battles over water between farmers and environmentalists, with conservative politicians often jumping in on the farmers’ side. President Donald Trump famously echoed a longstanding fish-versus-farmers trope last year, when he told Fox News that California was going to have to ration water. “You know why?” he said. “Because they send millions of gallons of water out to sea, out to the Pacific, because they want to take care of certain little, tiny fish.” The state is required to reserve water flows to protect threatened and endangered fish species.

Agricultural losses from the historic 2012-2016 drought were in excess of $3.8 billion in the state, and tens of thousands of jobs were lost in the San Joaquin Valley because farmers didn’t have water, said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District.

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Since the CVP is the district’s primary source of water, that means farmers will fallow land used to grow annual crops and rip out some of their permanent crops, he said.

Birmingham said the cuts will again have a significant economic effect on farmers in the district, which produces crops worth about $2 billion a year at the southwestern edge of the valley. 

But they will have an even bigger effect on the surrounding, predominantly Latino communities, he said, where unemployment rates skyrocketed during the last drought. “And coming on top of Covid-19, it has devastating socioeconomic effects on these communities,” Birmingham said.

There’s a variety of tactics that growers can use, some of them increasingly dire, to compensate as the water allocations change, said Danielle Veenstra, a third-generation almond farmer and sustainability communications manager for the California Almond Board. 

Farmers facing no allocations from the CVP might rely on local water districts, pump from a well installed as a backup or buy excess water from other districts. They’ll pay more for supplies purchased through the water market, she said, “because there’s high demand obviously right now.”

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom placed 41 of the state’s 58 counties under a drought emergency and proposed allocating more than $5 billion for drought relief and resilience. Newsom’s proposal includes $1.3 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, “with a focus on small and disadvantaged communities,” and $463 million toward wildlife and ecosystem projects.

Recognizing that not everyone is affected equally by the drought or by water policies is a critical step toward addressing disparities, policy experts say.

When it comes to drought, not all water users are treated equally, said Iris Stewart-Frey, an associate professor of environmental studies and sciences at Santa Clara University. Her recent research showed that richer, San Francisco Bay users saw no water restrictions during the 2012-2016 drought, while poorer users in the Central Valley and South Bay saw 30 percent cuts, and environmental flows were reduced by up to 90 percent. “Those with the least rights to water and are less wealthy get cut off first,” she said.

The reality of facing yet another exceptional drought calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach, said Stewart-Frey. “We’re going to have to take serious measures on all fronts.”

Santa Clara District water managers have encouraged homeowners to replace their lawns with water-efficient landscaping and reduce water use by 25 percent. That’s a good idea, Stewart-Frey said, but it doesn’t distinguish between those who already conserve and those who waste water. “There should potentially be upper limits for water uses that are not essential.”

Stewart-Frey said she looks forward to the day when state water managers take into consideration all the water users that make California the Golden State. 

“We want to come out of a drought still having a thriving economy, not losing all the treasures that we have in our environment and benefiting all people in the state,” she said. “Cutting uses that are not essential is going to be paramount.”

As severe droughts become more common, Stewart-Frey said, there are going to be a lot of unpopular choices. “That’s why I think it’s really important to make people understand how dire a situation this is, and get them on board.”

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