It may be dominating national news currently, but California’s devastating drought is far from the state’s first water shortage. The Mediterranean climate of the golden state is known to be a varying one, with farmers accustomed to its feast-or-famine water supply.
The state’s last significant drought lasted from 1987-1992. It was in the midst of this drought that the California Farm Water Coalition was formed. Its purpose? To correct misinformation regarding agriculture’s water usage. At the time, a thirsty public was decrying agriculture’s perceived over-use of diminishing water resources, with many calling for restrictions to be placed on farmers. Misleading statistics lead national news stories. Complaints claimed farmers were using more than their fair share of water.
Today is déjà vu.
Recently, California Governor Jerry Brown ordered California citizens to cut their water usage by 25 percent. When the public learned that agriculture had been exempt from this mandate, the result became an angry culture war, with many old complaints from the last drought resurfacing.
“Farmers were shocked to hear complaints that they weren’t asked to do more,” said Mike Wade, executive director for the California Farm Water Coalition. “Some of these farmers have no water left. You can’t cut 0 by 25 percent.”
Governor Brown has defended his decision to exempt agriculture from this particular order. In a statement on his webpage, he argued that, “agriculture water users have already borne the brunt of the drought to date.”
He’s referring to the fact that this is actually the fourth year of the current drought, with both loss and sacrifices stacking up for farmers. According to the Center for Watershed Sciences, 2014 alone saw the drought cost California farmers $2.2 billion, with over 17,000 jobs lost. And where current water restrictions on urban areas were just recently enforced, farmers have been losing their water consistently for years, including through other regulatory restrictions. The Central Valley Project, which delivers water managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, wrote in a February 2015 press release: “Unfortunately, many agricultural water contractors may face a second year of receiving no water from [our] project – an unprecedented situation.”
Another water regulation Wade cites is the Lake Shasta reservoir. Previously, farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta relied on it for crops but since 1992, the water has been restricted, with those restrictions heightening in 2008-09. The reason? The Federal Endangered Species Act.
There are two endangered fish species that depend on water originating from Lake Shasta: Chinook salmon and delta smelt. In an effort to protect them, the water in Lake Shasta is often prevented from being delivered to about 2 million acres of farmland south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. According to Wade, even in previous droughts farmers could receive a 25 percent supply of Lake Shasta’s water, or about 500,000 acre-feet. Today, only a handful of people with senior water rights are receiving any of it.
“The fish do matter,” assured Wade. “We want good ecosystems and recreation in California. We want people to be able to have a good career in the fishing industry as much as we want farmers to have one in agriculture. The problem is that the regulations are being mismanaged and it’s not helping any party.”
Twenty years on the endangered species list hasn’t helped these fish. In fact, they’re currently at their worst point; a recent article by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences claimed delta smelt are all but extinct. Wade said, “We’d rather see more restrictions put into things such as reducing the impact predatory fish have on these threatened fish.”
Opening up Lake Shasta’s water won’t solve the entire drought, but it would help farmers tremendously. According to Wade, since just last December, 477,000 acre-feet of water – part of which was in Lake Shasta – was prevented from going to farmers; ironically, that is almost the same amount of water that was delivered to farmers during the drought in 1992. “You can imagine the frustration being felt by farmers who help pay for and depend on these reservoirs for their water supplies,” Wade said.
Not to mention the additional insult to injury when agriculture is accused of not sacrificing at all. As Wade explained, “Four years of drought today has driven us to ruin almost, where during the last drought, over a span of six years we still delivered some water supply.”
Even farmers’ Plan B hasn’t helped their water fortunes. In the last 10 years in California, Wade estimates that over $3 billion has been invested in irrigation on about 2.5 million acres. More efficient irrigation systems were meant to lessen the amount of water farmers use but it has become a wasted investment, as those systems sit dry in fields because there isn’t enough water left to turn them on.
“In the earlier years of this drought we saw people reducing their irrigation to only parts of their farm, to keep smaller percentages of their fields going,” said Wade. “Now we’re seeing more and more whole farms going. Farmers are in survival mode.”
Exact predictions of this year’s farm losses are hard to make at this point, but early estimates are grim. “I’m hearing easily over one million acres to be fallowed because of the extended drought and regulatory restrictions,” said Wade. “If we see one million acres fallowed, we’re looking at 13 percent or more of California farmland going out of production. And that’s not including the additional amount that will be under-irrigated.”
While farmers can’t control the weather, they can help influence public perception and political legislation. Wade urges farmers to be vocal and share their stories with media outlets. Not only individuals in California, but farmers across the country. “The general public isn’t against farmers specifically,” Wade said. “What we’re seeing is attacks on ‘agribusiness’ and our industry isn’t alone in that. Big oil, big pharmacy, etc. are all seeing the same thing. It’s easy to make an attack if you aren’t talking about the guy down the road, who has a family and workers who depend on his farm. We hope that by seeing the people impacted by this, as opposed to the general ‘ag industry’, we’ll see more sympathy as to what’s going on.”
In the meantime, farmers in California continue to press on. “We’ve had droughts before,” said Wade, who considers himself an optimist. “And we will again. In fact, we’ll be dealing with floods before we know it!”