UPDATED: Governor declares California drought emergency

01/17/2014 03:45:00 PM
Mike Hornick

Great Seal State of California(UPDATED COVERAGE Jan. 23) Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency in California, a move that could ease future water transfers to San Joaquin Valley growers badly in need of it — if any water materializes.

Within days of Brown’s declaration, John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, came to Bakersfield to outline federal drought legislation. At a Jan. 22 news conference, Boehner and Republican California congressmen Kevin McCarthy, David Valadao and Devin Nunes said a forthcoming bill would allow farmers to pump from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as supply allows. It would also temporarily halt restoration of the San Joaquin River.

The valley, especially the Westside, is feeling the brunt of the drought’s effect on California agriculture. Lettuce, melon and other crops will take a big hit in light of anticipated zero water allocations there.

“It’s very serious,” said Dave Puglia, senior vice president of Western Growers Association. “Westlands Water District estimates that perhaps 200,000 acres will not be planted because of the drought. That reflects the move by a lot of growers to abandon their annual crops and protect their permanent crops.”

Besides lettuce and melons, processing tomatoes are likely to be affected.

“I expect substantial impact there, but it will be later in the season before we know,” Puglia said.

Brown’s Jan. 17 declaration drew support from the California Farm Bureau Federation as well as Western Growers. It allows some state regulations and requirements to be streamlined or waived, potentially speeding voluntary water transfers.

“The obvious question is, even if you can bypass some of the environmental red tape for water transfers, is there any water to transfer?” Puglia said. “There will be pockets, we hope, where voluntary suppliers transfer water to areas where need is greater. But given the very low precipitation California has received, there won’t be as many as we hope.”

With no big rains or snowfall in the immediate forecast, prospects for relief are longer term. High on agriculture’s wish list is to avoid a repeat of December 2012, when 850,000 acre feet of water was released to the Pacific Ocean rather than going to reservoirs.

Federal agencies released water in line with delta smelt protection guidelines, but the storms ended quickly and reservoirs turned out not to need flood capacity.

“They haven’t pumped as much water as they could under the biological opinion,” Puglia said. “We’re hoping the governor’s emergency declaration sent a strong signal to the Obama administration to be prepared to pump at the higher end of their discretion. If we get lucky and see storm activity, and pulse flows come down the Sacramento River, we need to capture as much of that as possible.”

“If we had those 850,000 acre feet in storage, we’d be in a hell of a lot better position now,” he said. “It’s basically equal to one Folsom Reservoir.”

The drought declaration, Puglia said, calls national attention to the problem.

“It adds to the urgency for the Obama administration and Congress to look at temporary relief measures,” he said. “Those can range from direct aid to people whose livelihoods are impacted to federal waiving of certain requirements that allow water to be moved.”

Western Growers Association president and chief executive officer Tom Nassif welcomed Boehner’s proposal in Bakersfield.

“We hope that the speaker’s engagement today marks a willingness by members of both parties and both houses of Congress to work toward bipartisan solutions to the water supply crisis that threatens thousands of America’s most productive farmers,” Nassif said in a news release.

“Federal action to raise the existing Shasta Dam should be expedited,” he said.

California’s last drought declaration, prompted by low rainfall in 2008 and 2009, ended in 2011.

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