• Water Shortages Loom Large for California Farmers
  • October 5, 2016 | Author: Thomas M. Berliner
  • Law Firm: Duane Morris LLP - San Francisco Office
  • From a climate perspective, 2016 in California was a fairly wet year. Northern California reservoirs filled and went in the flood control releases. That should be good news for California's cities and farms in terms of starting to dig out of the deep drought hole that has hit the state in the past several years. Overall, the past 10 years have been the driest on record. Despite full reservoirs in Northern California, to the south of Sacramento, where the San Joaquin Valley is located, large areas are still severely shorted in their water supplies. While many cities have been able to eliminate their water rationing programs, hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have been allocated a 5-percent water supply by the federal government. To make matters worse, for several farming areas that are customers of the federal Central Valley Project, the Bureau of Reclamation has "borrowed" hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of water with no apparent ability to repay it.

    Tensions are running high within the farmer and water manager communities. The reservoir that supplies water to the farmers, as well as provides water to the Silicon Valley, is essentially empty. How does this happen in a year where the reservoirs that typically provide the water are brimful? Enter the Endangered Species Act and politics.

    In 2014 and 2015, water managers for the state and federal governments that operate the biggest reservoirs in California were flying by the seat of their pants. The state had not experienced this type of a water shortage before. Rules were being made up as the drought progressed. According to federal biologists, winter run salmon populations were decimated due to warm temperatures. Also, other Endangered Species Act-protected species, such as the spring run Chinook salmon and the tiny Delta smelt, also allegedly saw their population numbers severely dwindled. There is much speculation that the Delta smelt may be extinct. So, in order to avoid fish dying due to warm river temperatures, the state and federal fishery managers ordered that water be held in the upstream reservoirs to provide “cold water” to be released later in the year to lower river temperatures and help save fish. At the same time, other fishery managers were demanding water to be released to protect the Delta smelt, which lives far downstream from these reservoirs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Meanwhile, water normally available for human uses was allowed to flow out to the ocean during times when it could not otherwise serve double duty of meeting fishery needs and human uses. As a result, the problems with California’s water management continues to unfold. At this point, what it means for fisheries and farmers is that the system, as currently managed, is unsustainable.