California’s Water-Starved Farmers Stymied by Fish Protections

Environmental protections for endangered salmon in California’s rivers and streams are drawing complaints from drought-stricken farmers who say water that could be pumped to them is allowed to empty into the ocean.

Authorities have sharply curtailed allocations in the largest U.S. agricultural producing state, with 2012 sales valued at $42.6 billion, forcing growers to leave farmland unplanted or pay escalated prices for water from other sources.

“The Endangered Species Act does not have any consideration for human impact, and that’s a little disturbing,” said Joe Del Bosque, 65, president of Del Bosque Farms in Firebaugh, who grows melons and tomatoes. “It’s already harming us now. It could be worse next year.”

One of the worst droughts in California’s history is intensifying a longstanding conflict between farmers, environmentalists and fishermen over the Chinook salmon that spawn in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems. A crash in the salmon population forced a ban on commercial fishing off California and Oregon in 2008 and 2009. Smelt are also protected, though they are considered threatened, a step short of endangered.

To protect the fish, officials temporarily turn off pumping stations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that supplies water to millions of acres of farmland and 23 million state residents. Farmers say shutting down the pumps costs them millions in lost revenue by allowing the water to flow into the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco Bay.

‘Environment Supersedes’

“For us, our water supply is directly linked with whatever fish actions are necessary in the Delta,” said Sarah Woolf, 43, a partner at Clark Brothers Farming near Five Points, California. “There has to be a value placed on delivering water to urban centers, whether it be for industry, for human consumption and for agriculture. Today they are at the bottom of the list and the environment supersedes everything.”

The drought, not environmental regulations, is responsible for the vast majority of water reductions, said Doug Obegi, a lawyer for the water program in the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

“There have been very minimal restrictions on pumping due to Endangered Species Act protections,” Obegi said. “By and large, there’s just not enough water to go around in the system.”

Agriculture consumes about 80 percent of all delivered water in the most-populous U.S. state. California’s 80,500 farms and ranches supply everything from milk, beef and flowers to half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the U.S.

Zero Allocation

After three years of record-low rain and snow, farmers got none of their contractual water allocations, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation data. Wildlife and senior water-rights holders -- those with claims dating to before 1914 -- got 75 percent north of the delta, and 65 percent south of the delta, according to the data.

“We’re talking about severe drought conditions,” said Louis Moore, a bureau spokesman. “Everyone else took a cut. Until the drought is lifted, we have a diminishing water supply that’s only going to get tighter.”

In Congress, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, has offered a bill aimed at maximizing water supplies to farmers without violating environmental laws. Senate and House aides are negotiating a compromise version of the bill that passed the Senate in May.

The measure would ask federal officials to open the Delta Cross Channel Gates for as long as possible while salmon aren’t migrating to pump additional water without harming the fish. The gates control the diversion channel near Walnut Grove that moves water from the Sacramento River toward the delta.

$7.1 Billion Bonds

Governor Jerry Brown, a 76-year-old Democrat running for re-election, declared a drought emergency in January and urged the public to reduce water use by 20 percent. Brown last month signed legislation to place a proposal on the November ballot to issue $7.1 billion in water bonds for storage such as dams and reservoirs, groundwater sustainability and water recycling.

The water shortage is expected to cost $2.2 billion statewide this year, and result in a loss of 17,100 jobs and 428,000 acres of unplanted land, according to a July report by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California at Davis.

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