Valley farmers need Sacramento to sustain water levels
By Reggie Ellis
As deadline approaches to become water neutral, Valley ag leaders say they must work with the state or give up control of their own water
TULARE COUNTY – Sacramento law makers have shown little interest in helping the Valley solve its water problems yet the only path forward is to get them to take interest in the area that grows most of the state, and the nation’s food.
Hundreds of growers attended the discussion on how the Valley will deal with a 2014 law requiring all areas in the state to be water neutral in the next 20 years. Photo by Reggie Ellis.
A panel discussion last Wednesday at the Citrus Showcase, an industry conference for growers hosted by Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual (CCM), discussed the looming deadline for local governments to comply with the Groundwater Sustainability Management Act (SGMA). Often referred to as “sigma,” the 2014 law set a deadline of Jan. 31, 2020 for local agencies to implement plans to become water neutral, meaning they put as much water back into the ground as they take out. The state requires that every area deemed an overdraft basin, such as the entire San Joaquin Valley, must be operating under a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) approved by the Department of Water Resources by next year. The plans are being drafted by Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) across the state. These agencies are a collection of city councilmembers, county supervisors, water experts, and farmers whose job is to figure out a way for the land within their boundaries to be water neutral in the next 20 years.
Among the panelists for the “Strategies for Surviving SGMA” workshop was Pete Hronis, a Delano citrus grower and chairman for CCM’s Water Task Force, who said the No. 1 goal of farmers should be to avoid state intervention by coordinating the GSAs to come up with a plan that works for the greatest number of farmers. Hronis urged every grower to attend GSA meetings to understand what’s going on with farmers in their area and how their property fits into the plan.
“You had better think about the effect on your neighbor,” Hronis said. “If someone dents your truck, you need to fix their dent before you fix your own.”
Hronis also challenged farmers not to stop at projects that have already been in motion. He said plans to increase storage above Fresno won’t have much of an effect on reversing the Valley’s status as an overdrafted groundwater basin. Known as Temperance Flat, the project would more than double the capacity of water storage at Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam, possibly reducing groundwater pumping for irrigation in the Valley by as much as 183,000 acre feet per year, the equivalent of the amount of water used by a quarter of a million homes each year. Growers agreed that amount of water is too little and certainly will be too late.
“Temperance Flat is not a silver bullet to save us from SGMA,” Hronis told the group of a few hundred growers at the Visalia Convention Center. “It’s not going to be built for another 20 to 30 years.”
Hronis pointed out that the Valley is at 130% of its normal water year but there is no way to store the additional water for a dry year. He said local GSA’s will have to come up with new ways to build more groundwater recharge.
“We need to get people in Sacramento to understand this business a little better,” he said.
Jason Phillips, CEO of Lindsay-based Friant Water Authority, agreed and even took it a step further, saying there was no other viable solution than to plead their case to Sacramento. Phillips said the San Joaquin Valley will need an additional 2.5 million acre feet of water per year to become sustainable. Temperance Flat, a plan to raise the dam above Fresno, would only increase the Valley’s water supply by 200,000 acre feet. Couple that with estimates the Valley will fallow 1 million acres, and the Valley is still short of sustainability by more than 1 million acre feet per year.
“SGMA is driving to eliminate groundwater overdraft. We can’t underestimate the significance of what that ask is,” Phillips said.
Phillips said crops that require more than six inches of water per acre per year should be concerned with how much groundwater they will need to pump to meet those demands on high water crops such as alfalfa and almonds. Phillips did say that one of the bright spots of SGMA is that it does not regulate surface water.
“You can’t pump more than an acre foot of water per acre per year,” he said. “But there is nothing in SGMA that regulates surface water.”
Phillips did offer a ray of hope. He estimates about 10 million acre feet of water flows out to sea every year, or enough to fill Millerton Lake every day and a half. But capturing that water involves meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsoom and working with the legislature to get more water from the Sacramento Delta to the rest of the Valley.
“We all have to decide, do we want to approach the new Gov. to maintain agriculture close to its current levels, or move forward with land retirement and the social impact that will cause?,” he asked. “I do see a pathway to getting another 1 million acre feet through to the Valley.”
David DeGroot, a civil engineer and a principal of 4Creeks, Inc. in Visalia, said surface water may be the answer for those who have access to it, but many do not. He said the “haves” need to be good stewards of the water they receive to avoid pumping water and drawing from the only supply available to the “have-nots.” David said growers should already know how much water their operation uses during the year, and if they don’t, he suggests spending a lot of time on it for the rest of the year.
“Surface water is a very strategic resource,” DeGroot said. “Those who have access need to be as responsible with their water as they can.”
DeGroot said farmers had three options: 1) conserve more water; 2) bring in additional surface water; and 3) quit consuming water. He said farmers, especially citrus growers, have already transitioned to drip irrigation and moved away from flooding for frost protection to conserve water and that all of the available surface water, at least all the system can currently handle, is fully allocated to those with water rights. That leaves option 3, which means fallowing land. David said retiring crop yielding acreage may seem like the answer to some, but he said that solution comes with new problems, such as lower property value, which mean lower property taxes for local government.
“This is the most controversial and the most difficult,” DeGroot said.
DeGroot also encouraged farmers to go to the GSA meetings and see what options are available. Does your GSA offer surface water credits, where farmers who conserve water for most of the year can use extra water during their growing season. Can these water credits be transferred from land in one GSA to land in another? Can they be transferred across county lines from one farmer’s property in one area to another?
“We also need to keep it out of the courts,” added Eric Osterling, general manager of the Greater Kaweah GSA and manager of water resources for the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District. “We need to avoid internal fighting.”
Osterling stated that growers narrowly missed on $640 million to help farmers transition into SGMA when Proposition 3 failed last November. Now it’s up to farmers and the GSA’s that cover their part of the state to come up with a plan that helps them recharge the groundwater faster than they draw out without draining their pocket books.
“We are the first line of defense for sustainability,” Osterling said. “If we fail at the local level it goes back to the state.”
Hronis said the state has not constructed any significant water infrastructure since the 1970s and has shown an unwillingness to improve things in the Valley. Temperance Flat only received 6% of the needed $2.7 billion to increase water storage. Voters statewide had an opportunity to help last November by passing the first water bond to focus on Valley needs. But Proposition 3, an $8.9 billion bond that would have fixed subsidence along the Friant-Kern Canal and helped repair and expand ditches and canals throughout the state, only garnered 49% of the vote.
“Don’t panic, we’re farmers,” Hronis said. “We’ve been through much harder times than this.”