HANFORD — Would redirecting more water from rivers and streams toward Valley agriculture prevent the permanent loss of hundreds of thousands of irrigated acres?
Probably not, according to Cal Poly irrigation expert Charles Burt — and he’s asking you not to shoot the messenger.
Many growers drilled wells, planted almond trees and started pumping in areas with literally no access to surface water.
“There’s been a huge expansion of trees outside of irrigation districts,” Burt said.
“They’re all pumping from the groundwater.”
At the same time, several factors — the San Joaquin River restoration project, other environmental flows reserved for rivers and limits on pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta — mean less and less surface water is available overall to put a serious dent in overdraft.
Now natural drought has hit, exacerbating the problem. The result? Groundwater exhaustion is coming, one way or the other, and an area the size of Rhode Island is likely to permanently drop from agricultural production in the Central Valley.
Burt knows that’s not a popular view. Lost acreage has severe economic and social impacts on Valley communities struggling with poverty and unemployment.
“All I’m doing is just laying out problems,” he said. “You just can’t keep pulling more out of the bank than you have.”
“I’m not saying people are evil,” he added. “I’m just saying, ‘Look, the water levels are going down.’ It’s got to turn around.”
Meanwhile, many agricultural leaders are seeking to get the attention of the rest of the state by emphasizing the economic, social and environmental damage caused by the loss of so many acres of irrigated land this year. The goal? To get political leaders to enact a water bond to fund more water storage projects and to modify the Endangered Species Act to free up more water from the delta for growers.
“We will have communities more disadvantaged than they already are,” said Diane Friend, Kings County Farm Bureau executive director. “We’ll have communities that sustain themselves off government programs ... I think that’s the long-term effect.”
Friend predicted an increase in fruits and vegetables imported from other countries. California supplies the U.S. with more than 90 percent of its almonds, broccoli, celery, kiwis, lemons, nectarines, pistachios and plums.
Friend anticipated that many businesses will leave the Valley, including dairies.
Mike Wade, California Farm Water Coalition executive director, estimates 800,000 Central Valley acres will go fallow this year, with up to 20,000 jobs lost.
By comparison, during the last major drought in 2009, a University of the Pacific study concluded that between 243,000 and 268,583 crop acres and between 5,567 and 7,434 jobs were lost due to drought-related water shortages.
“Right now, we’re educating people on what the drought impacts are in rural California,” he said.
Burt, as a researcher, is steering clear of politics. He’s involved in leading-edge research into ways farmers can irrigate more efficiently. Using advanced drip-tape techniques, progressive farmers have doubled or even tripled their yields per gallon of water consumed.
“It’s not like our whole industry is going to hell in a handbasket,” he said. “People are doing a better job of farming. The people who are less astute, they will fall.”
Burt expects an acceleration of advancements as water availability problems increase.
“The way guys are improving their yields ... I don’t know that the yields are actually going to go down [overall],” he said. “It all depends on who takes the hit.”
Burt sees the efficiency gains extending to dairies, which are relatively water-intensive.
“I see it as kind of a natural evolution of things,” he said.
Meanwhile, Friend and Wade aren’t willing to give up on the fight to obtain more water.
Wade is hammering away at the Endangered Species Act, arguing that it needs to be reformed. He thinks water officials should be required to prove that pumping restrictions imposed to protect fish species have a demonstrably beneficial effect.
He estimated that 815,000 acre-feet of water was allowed to flow out to sea last year instead of being captured.
“We diverted 815,000 acre-feet for delta [smelt] and salmon,” he said. “We’re wasting water. We’re wasting money.”
“I’m hoping that the political balance will shift,” she said. “Economic losses are going to have huge impacts on property taxes, on schools. It trickles down.”
“There’s a crack in the window, and we’ve got to pull that window open as far as we can,” she added.
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 and at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SethN_HS.