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Growers see Trump's water delivery order as a promise keptGrowers see Trump's water delivery order as a promise kept

Water official says much work remains to update infrastructure, repair subsidence damage

Todd Fitchette

February 20, 2020

4 Min Read
Grower Larry Starrh with President Donald Trump
Kern County Farmer Larry Starrh, at podium, thanks President Trump at a rally Feb. 19 where the president signed a memorandum ordering more surface water deliveries to parched California farms. Standing next to the president is Bakersfield-area Congressman Kevin McCarthy.Todd Fitchette

Kern County farmer Larry Starrh told President Donald Trump in Bakersfield that his family considered selling the farm prior to his election in 2016 because of pessimistic economic signs. On Wednesday he thanked the president for giving him the hope to reverse that decision.

With Starrh and other Central Valley farmers in attendance, the president signed an official memorandum to address complaints in how water is managed for fish and the environment after ordering two federal agencies to rewrite biological opinions mapping how surface water supplies are managed.

The action comes two years after Trump ordered the departments of Commerce and Interior in 2018 to improve irrigation reliability to California farmers by rewriting biological opinions used by the various agencies to protect fish and the environment.

Previous biological opinions have long been argued as ineffective at protecting fish. These same opinions have been used as excuses to curtail contracted water deliveries to farmers and force farmers to fallow vast tracts of land.

Water access

Trump says the need for the new biological opinions and federal action comes in the wake of California's "regulatory failures" and decisions to "not build any major water storage infrastructure since 1979." During his Bakersfield appearance, the president chided California lawmakers, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, for failing to ensure critical water access for California residents.

Related:Trump in SJ Valley to discuss water flexibility

The president's action in an airport hangar in Bakersfield came one day after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told about 600 people packed into the Heritage Complex in Tulare that the new biological opinions would ensure farmers and residents better supplies of surface water by presenting updated science. For some communities in the state, surface water supplies via canal are their only source of drinking water as groundwater is either non-existent or unsafe.

The memorandum signed by President Trump directs the secretaries of Interior and Commerce, and the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, to help deliver and develop more water supplies in California's Central Valley. In short, the president's order directs the agencies to find more efficient ways to accomplish water deliveries.

One idea currently under study and consideration would raise Shasta Dam over 18 feet, creating space for an estimated 630,000 acre-feet of additional storage. Shasta Lake holds over 4.5 million acre-feet of federal water as the cornerstone of the massive Central Valley Project.

Related:Updated opinions on Delta fish could boost CVP flexibility

Water manager's perspective

Friant Water Authority Chief Executive Officer Jason Phillips, who was also part of the Tulare meeting with Nunes and Bernhardt, gave a pragmatic presentation on how California has seen its deliverable water supplies dwindle since passage of the Central Valley Improvement Act in 1992. He also pointed to how water use by farmers in the last century has been largely dependent upon surface deliveries. Without those deliveries, farmers were forced to pump groundwater, a move that led to severe subsidence in some areas of the Central Valley.

For the Friant Water Authority, which receives water from the Bureau of Reclamation and delivers it via a 152-mile canal to growers and cities in the southern half of the San Joaquin Valley, subsidence has more than halved the carrying capacity in the gravity-fed canal.

While the president's signature and support for California agriculture is appreciated, Phillips says much work remains on water infrastructure in California to get the water from where it falls and is stored to areas of need.

3 million acre-feet

The issues become much more complicated as officials must figure out how to make up an annual water deficit of about 3 million acre-feet within existing laws and infrastructure. That is nearly the same amount of water as stored behind Oroville Dam at capacity.

What makes the issue of surface water even more critical is the need under state law to sustainably balance groundwater supplies in the state by 2040. The law known as the State Groundwater Management Act – often pronounced "sigma" – is in its first phases as local agencies were formed and reports written to map out how the various groundwater basins in the state will manage their water supplies. For some this means the wholesale fallowing of farmland. Some estimates show about one million acres of farmland could be permanently lost in the state because of SGMA and its provisions.

About the Author(s)

Todd Fitchette

Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

Todd Fitchette, associate editor with Western Farm Press, spent much of his journalism career covering agriculture in California and the western United States. Aside from reporting about issues related to farm production, environmental regulations and legislative matters, he has extensive experience covering the dairy industry, western water issues and politics. His journalistic experience includes local daily and weekly newspapers, where he was recognized early in his career as an award-winning news photographer.

Fitchette is US Army veteran and a graduate of California State University, Chico. 

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