Farmers Fight Water Cutbacks in California

FARMERS from the nation's most productive produce state delivered a $50 billion invoice to Gov. Pete Wilson at the statehouse this past Wednesday.

The bill was their estimate of the economic loss California might face in the wake of what they call the worst agricultural news in 40 years: the Federal Bureau of Reclamation's Feb. 14 decision to drastically reduce water supplies to the Central Valley Water Project (CVP).

The 540-mile network of dams, aqueducts, and canals feeds 25,000 farms in the San Joaquin Valley. The area produces half the nation's fruits and vegetables. Seven thousand of the farms covering about 1 million acres will have their federal water supplies cutoff completely. Another 18,000 farms will receive 50 to 75 percent of normal allotments.

"We can't deliver what we don't have," says Don Paff, chief of the bureau's Central Valley Operation. "We are experiencing the worst deficiency of water in the project's history."

He said there was almost bitter irony in his announcement of the water cutoff last week. He had to fly through thunder and rain that caused flash flooding across much of the state.

But the well-publicized rains will do little to alleviate the devastating state drought that is now entering its sixth year. The unrelieved duration of the drought, causing record depletions of surface and groundwater, is cited as the main reason for the bureau's actions. Officials also cited laws and municipal contracts that designate what little available water is left for cities and endangered environments. Warm water kills fish

Chinook salmon, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act, for instance, cannot survive in water that is too warm. If water is released into the CVP beneath Shasta Dam, the reservoir behind it becomes shallower, and thus too warm.

"We are losing our water on what we believe is a bad application of the [Endangered Species] Act," says Marion Mathis, vice president of the Family Farm Water Alliance, a grass-roots group that organized Wednesday's rallies.

Also backing the group were the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Forestry Association, the California Rice Industry Association, and several chambers of commerce.

Farm groups in the Central Valley have estimated crop losses from the announced water turnoff at $1 billion. And the California Department of Food and Agriculture says each dollar of lost crops costs an additional $3 of income generated by picking, packaging, distribution, and restaurant jobs.

Using that estimate, Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, says the $50 billion in possible economic damage claimed by the coalition is very liberal.

"The total loss of agriculture in California would amount to about $60 billion - if every support industry failed as well," she says, basing her figure on the $17 billion to $18 billion generated by California agriculture last year. "I don't think that is a reasonable assumption."

The decision has the potential to permanently close several thousand farms though, says Ms. Warmerdam. Similar decisions in recent years have meant tough times - a cutback to 25 percent of capacity last year led to several shifts in crop choices. The hour has now come when groundwater supplies have become too depleted to make up the deficit economically, she says.

"Not only does the price of pumping go up," says Warmerdam, "but we are reaching the point where these [underground] aquifers are collapsing to where they cannot refill." Rain not policy

A coalition of environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and Audubon Society is also pushing for federal reform that would require more equal distribution to cities, agriculture, and environment. "The bureau is now paying the price ... for 40 years of environmental neglect," says Barry Nelson, coalition coordinator of Share the Water, an environmental group.

However, the coalition of farmers and farm groups says it intends to question the validity of the Endangered Species Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress. "We are challenging it because it is forcing an undue burden on farmers," says John Sutton, a farmer north of Sacramento. "If [the salmon domain] is in the public trust, shouldn't the burden be shared equally by others?"

But the Bureau of Reclamation's Paff says considerations over environment were only a secondary consideration of his agency's decision. Monthly estimates of available water are made based on storage levels of reservoirs, depletion depths of aquifers, and forecasts of precipitation. Though farmers are hoping for more rain that could help rescind the decision next month, allowing perhaps 25 percent of capacity to flow, Paff says such events are unlikely.

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