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Drought Wars: Where Did the Farm Water Go?

By   /   February 13, 2014  /   Comments Off

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Originally posted at Cal Watchdog.

drought_farmWhere did that farm water go? That’s a major question stalking California during its record drought.

The finger-pointing sure is under way. On Feb. 4, environmental writer Dan Bacher pointed at state water managers, claiming they made the California drought worse by taking water from Northern California farms and fish and sending it to Southern California cities.


Bacher claimed 827,000 acre-feet of water was sent to Southern California in 2013, where some of it was consumed by cities and some stored in Castaic Lake and Pyramid Lake, both North of Los Angeles. Bacher’s claim evokes the image of another water grab by Los Angeles almost a century ago and dramatized in the move “Chinatown.”

However, Bacher is talking about water from the State Water Project that primarily serves Southern cities, not Central Valley farms where the farm drought has hit the hardest.

Ocean in 2012

A finger pointing another direction belongs to Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition. He insists that more than 800,000-acre feet of federal Central Valley Project water was flushed to the ocean in 2012 to reestablish salmon runs in the San Joaquin River.

Water from the San Joaquin River was allowed to flow to the ocean to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act, a federal court order, and the San Joaquin River Restoration Act of 2009, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Wade’s claim evokes images of John Steinbeck’s epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, where farmers, ironically, escaped from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to Central California.

According to Wade:

“Regarding water use in the state, it is important to remember that in an average year, the people of California commit 48% of our available water for environmental use, while 41% is used for farming, and 11% for California’s municipal and industrial uses.

“The causes of our current shortage are several — most critical is the drier than typical past two years, but we can’t just blame mother nature. We shouldn’t forget our own failure to put away water for leaner times. Just last year we had an opportunity to store up to 815,000 acre feet of water — enough for well over 4 million people, or five cities the size of San Jose. Californians must prepare for drought when water is available or suffer, as we are now, for our lack of action.”  


Among those directly affected, both fishermen and farmers allege the drought is man-made — that reservoirs were emptied before a rare entrenched winter dry spell set in. But there are other views.

Environmental organizations such as the California branch of The Nature Conservancy want to point the finger away from the Endangered Species Act and toward nature and a lack of rainfall.  But a severe drought is natural and must be planned for.

Central Valley Project farm water is co-dependent on:

a) Water releases North of the Delta;

b) Water releases from Shasta Lake and Trinity Lake into the Sacramento River that flow into the Delta;

c) South-of-the-Delta water flowing from the Sierras into the San Joaquin River, which also runs to the Delta.

A 60-mile stretch of the San Joaquin River becomes high and dry in low-rainfall years and wet in high-rainfall years.  In 2006, a federal judge ordered that this sometimes dry reach of the San Joaquin River must be wetted with enough water every year to allow for salmon runs, even if nature never historically permitted uninterrupted flows of water.

This court action resulted in taking water and money from farmers to keep an intermittently dry reach of the river perpetually wet.  Part of the problem of restoring the San Joaquin River for salmon runs is that engineers have to figure out how to run river water uphill during dry years.  The only way to do that is to send a massive gusher of water through the river that takes all future storage water with it.


colorado_droughtSome water finger-pointing went to court last year.

In May 2013, the Westlands Water District and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority in Eastern San Joaquin Valley sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Department of the Interior, to stop the release of 109,000 acre-feet of water from Trinity Lake to save salmon for Indian Tribes and sports fishermen. In August 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California briefly issued, then rescinded, a restraining order on releasing the water. So the water is flowing now.

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