As airwaves overflow with discussion surrounding candidates and measures on the November ballot, it is noteworthy that Nov. 7 — the day after election day — may bring a decision at least as important for many growers.
That’s the date the State Water Resources Control Board is set to reconvene on one of its most controversial topics in recent years: a plan to protect fish by limiting how much water farmers draw from the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries, including the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers. Plans to limit withdrawals from the Sacramento River and its tributaries are also expected to be announced in coming months.
“It’s important to realize that this plan, if adopted, is going to eventually affect all of agriculture and most cities,” says Jesse Roseman, senior environmental specialist for the Almond Board of California (ABC).
PLAN OPPOSED INITIALLY
The ‘unimpaired flows’ plan proposes changes to the Bay-Delta Plan. Key among these changes, in the words of Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus, is that “more water be left in the river.”
The state defines unimpaired flow as “the flow that would occur if all runoff from the watershed remained in the river, without storage in reservoirs or diversions, such as irrigation, power generation, or water supply.”
The proposal calls for Lower San Joaquin and tributaries to be maintained between 30 percent and 50 percent unimpaired flows; that is, no more than 50 percent to 70 percent of the water could be diverted from the river for human use, i.e., drinking, irrigation, and power generation.
First publicly released in September 2016, the plan immediately met sharp opposition from agricultural groups, cities, water districts, and others who recognized that more water in the rivers meant less water for farms and cities. After receiving thousands of comment letters, the Water Board revised and re-released the plan in July this year — again to loud outcry. Hundreds then protested on the steps of the state capitol on Aug. 20, followed by more than 150 individuals and organizations testifying during a two-day hearing. The Water Board deferred action until Nov. 7, saying it recognized “the complexity and sensitivity of its work to update flow requirements.”
ECONOMIC IMPACTS UNDERESTIMATED?
ABC’s Roseman says the California almond industry has been closely engaged in the planning process.
In a July 27 letter, the Almond Alliance of California suggested the Water Board’s analysis included “errors, omissions, and unsupported assumptions,” which led to “significant underestimation of economic impacts.”
The Alliance refuted the Water Board’s suggestion that farmers choose crops that use less water, and the “repeated assertion that there are crops that require less water.” The Alliance said statements should be supported with evidence that such “hypothetical” crops “provide equivalent nutrients in the human diet and economic benefits to the state and nation.”
Fully understanding long-term economic impacts of reduced irrigation supplies can be challenging, Roseman says, “particularly in a crop like almonds, where significant irrigation deficits can harm a crop two years out.”
While growers view reduced surface water supplies with alarm, the ongoing implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) only elevates concerns. Reduced surface supplies could lead to growing dependence on pumping groundwater, even though SGMA will force many to reduce pumping to prevent further overdraft of aquifers.
WORKING FOR REAL SOLUTIONS
ABC has invested in solutions to help growers become more resilient in a future with scarcer water. According to Roseman, solutions include research, education, and outreach to increase water use efficiency, while also evaluating opportunities for recharging groundwater aquifers during the rainy season.
Such efforts paid off with a dramatic reduction — about 33 percent less water used per pound of almonds compared to 20 years ago. This was following grower adoption of efficient practices, such as installing micro-sprinklers and drip irrigation, and changed horticultural practices.
However, Roseman believes more must be done to protect access to surface water supplies for growers by demonstrating creative, successful solutions to recovering fish populations.
“I have a passion for creating a Central Valley where agriculture and fish and wildlife thrive,” he says.
SAVING FISH AND FARMS
Before joining ABC, Roseman managed leases and conservation easements on ‘wildlife-friendly farms’ for The Nature Conservancy, working with farmers to enact conservation programs and habitat improvements. One such project involved flood plain restoration on the Cosumnes River, in part to create salmon habitat.
Other successful projects, he says, included the Honolulu Bar Floodplain Enhancement Project on the Stanislaus River, which rebuilds salmon populations using restored floodplains, gravel beds, and channels, and the Nigiri Project, which seeks to rear salmon fry in rice fields, and which recently was awarded funding by the Almond Board.
“Broadly speaking, studies show that fish raised on a flood plain are larger than fish raised solely in a river channel,” Roseman says. “Flooded agricultural areas can act like flood plains, so we are co-funding research to see whether larger fish raised on flooded rice can have increased survival through the Delta. If we can recover salmon populations through targeted habitat creation, there is going to be less pressure to solve that problem through reduced water supplies.”
 California State Water Resources Control Board, Sept. 15, 2016. Summary of Proposed Updates to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, p. 3.
2 University of California. UC Drought Management. Feb. 2010. UN FAO. Irrigation and Drainage Paper 66. 2012. Almond Board of California. Almond Almanac 90-94, 00-14.