Of Fish and Farmers: California’s Drought-Fueled Debate


For years, a tug-of-war between Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and California’s two Democratic senators over the state’s limited water supply has prevented Congress from resolving critical water allocation issues. But on Wednesday, May 25th,  the House endorsed a plan (H.R. 2898) to divert more water from northern California to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. The 247-169 vote amending the Senate Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016, is considered a victory for Republicans and includes legislation drafted by Rep. David Valadao, a Republican from Hanford, CA.

Republicans, many of which represent farming communities severely economically impacted by the drought, maintain that current legislation should focus on supporting agriculture and food production by channeling precious water resources to growers.

“Farmland that once fed the world now sits dry,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican representing Bakersfield, told Andrew Taylor of the Associated Press. “People are losing their livelihoods and their hope.”

However, Democrats such as Jerry McNerney, representing Stockton, are concerned about the environmental impacts of diverting water to farmland, specifically the endangerment of downstream fish populations. Currently under the Endangered Species Act and Clean Air Act, water is allowed to flow to the Pacific in order to support species like the Delta Smelt, the longfin smelt, and the Chinook winter-run salmon. Democrats argue that the measure may deprive northern California farmers of water while endangering fish populations.

“These provisions would undermine 40 years of progress,” McNerney told the Associated Press. “The provisions in the bill will weaken the Endangered Species Act and set a precedent of putting aside environmental protections.”

They’re also concerned about the big picture. “The fact is we have a broken water system,” said Representative Jim Costa of Fresno. Costa is one of several Democrats that crossed party lines to vote in favor of sending additional water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and who attribute much of the issue on flawed environmental policies. What are your suggestions for a bipartisan solution? WE_bug_web

  • Johnny R.

    Water should be diverted to the farmers and at the same time the failing infrastructure needs to be addressed. The farmers should be given a time frame to change to a drip irrigation system to cut their water use by at least 40%. Recycling water like Israel or the city of El Paso should be a mandated future goal. There are so many ways to keep the water flowing and maintain the ecosystem but it requires forethought, purpose and a common sense approach.

  • Heidi.

    I agree somewhat with Johnny. But we should place more priority on that “time frame to change to drip irrigation” and make it a requirement of farmers, not something that can be “kicked down the road”. Has anyone evaluated how many farms in CA are really using irrigation practices that conserve water? If that’s not made a requirement of farmers, then they will always require more water at the expense of the environment (marine life survival). The fishing industry is an industry that feeds people too. So Agriculture does believe it’s king but there has to be a balanced approach where every side gives something to make things sustainable.

  • Nancy K..

    The ecosystems have been showing signs of extreme stress for decades. Farmers have wasted untold millions of gallons of water. The fishing industry in the past provided a multitude of good jobs. Farming at the expense of fish and healthy ecosystems is unsustainable. Assistance should be provided to help farm with less water use. Fish must come first. They are going extinct, from Delta Smelt to numerous salmon and steelhead species.

  • Dennis.

    California has plenty of water to use for irrigation. It comes in the form or recycled wastewater that is already treated, but is for the most part wasted. Although treatment processes can be expensive, the loss of revenue, jobs and livelihoods is a greater expense. Treated wastewater can also be used to offset any water diverted upstream to ensure species like the Delta Smelt are sustained.

  • There are a couple of facts that the previous comments show a lack of understanding on. First off most of the land that will be supplied by this water specifically already utilizes drip. The majority of the State Water Project lands that will be supplied (understand that this is not a new supply but is meeting previously obligated contracts) already utilizes drip. Second is drip does not “save” water. There is potential to apply the water more evenly through the fields with drip but in order to save water, water must be lost. If water is not used by the crop it either runs off the field or recharges the aquifer. The runoff is used by other downstream demands and the groundwater recharge is pumped and used by someone else. So over the region (basin) there is really no conservable water. We have an existing, excellent recycled water system due to the hydrology of the Valley. It has been utilized for many many years. These are known facts and have been well documented by CA DWR, USGS, and water experts throughout California over the last 100+years. The only water that can really be saved from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys (Redding to Bakersfield) is what goes into San Francisco Bay and the ocean. Now this is considered beneficial from an environmental standpoint but I would argue that it is only beneficial, at the times and in the amounts that are truly beneficial for the species that we are trying to protect. Otherwise it is just lost. In order to ensure the proper amounts and timing of flows would require more storage, both surface and groundwater recharge. Without storage (especially surface (lakes/reservoirs)) we simply do not have enough water to meet demands (municipal, agricultural, and environmental). In the Sac and San Joaquin Valley there is no way we can “conserve” our way out of this.

    With regard to recycling water, California already recycles more urban water than Israel. Israel just brags about it louder. Israel also does not have the same environmental regulations as we do. Additionally, where do you think the treated waste water goes from cities in the Central Valley? It is either used to recharge the groundwater, supply parks, or goes to the rivers where it is used for another demand (ag, urban, and/or environmental). This would seem to fit the definition of recycling.


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