Fish vs. Farms?

by Curt Burnett on August 14, 2009

Before 1850, there were probably 1 million to 2 million steelhead spawning in Central Valley waterways. Most recently, there were 3,628 spawners, according to a 2005 study.

From the Stockton Record, June 14, 2009

After a couple of days in the Central Valley and a few hours spent researching the history and current situation around the drought, I watched a Youtube video of the Sean Hannity broadcast on the same situation. I knew that the broadcast had taken place because they were scheduled to visit the Westlands Water District later in the same day we were there. Sean gets very exercised about the outrage of farms being shut down to save “baitfish”, the delta smelt, which play some role in the current limitations on pumping Sacramento River Delta water into the west side of the Central Valley.

I’m not sure what Hannity’s motivations are (although they don’t appear to be to educate the public on a complex situation). But saying that the water problems of the Central Valley are due to lunatic environmentalists trying to save the delta smelt is like saying that General Motors went bankrupt due to Congress passing fuel economy laws. There may be some slight connection but there’s a whole lot more to the story than that.

This brings back to mind the talk given by Professor Mike Young at the Irrigation Water Conference. He used the term “strife” to describe the kind of pointless, futile conflict that took place in Australia in the early stages of their long water emergency. It seems to me that the current situation in the Central Valley lends itself to the kind of solution he was talking about, where everyone involved realizes that the battles aren’t going to make any more water, and they sit down to arrive at solutions together.

The environmentalists concerned about the ecological health of the Sacramento Delta aren’t going to go away. The cities who also crave Delta water aren’t going away either. And it wouldn’t be good for the country if agriculture went away in the Central Valley. So what can be done?

It seems to me that the most urgent item on the to-do list is already in process, but needs to be stepped up in a water-short environment. We visited a huge orchard complex further south in the valley which has used nothing but drip for many years, in conjunction with all of the best practices for optimizing irrigation. They go to great lengths to not use one more drop of water than necessary. This not only saves water, but more importantly it helps slow the degradation of the soil due to salinization. On the other hand, we stopped at one tomato farm to look at some of their equipment, and immediately noticed a leak of 60 gpm or so rapidly growing a pool on the ground. The equipment looked very poorly maintained, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that such leaks are a frequent occurrence. This kind of waste was likely insignificant when the Bureau of Reclamation was providing 100% or even 50% of nominal contracted water, but at 10% it’s not going to work for long.

If we again look to Australia for a picture of the future, it may be that Central Valley growers will have to evaluate their crops, and in some cases switch to the less water-intensive varieties. On the municipal side, valley cities like Stockton are clearly going to have to tighten up their water and wastewater practices, including more extensive water reuse for landscape irrigation.

One plan for increasing available irrigation water while at the same time protecting the delta involves raising the dam that forms Lake Shasta. Not surprisingly, many of the people who live in the vicinity of the lake have an opinion about that. The reality is that the era of grand irrigation projects and new dam construction has passed, and these days every action to secure more water has its inevitable reaction.

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