Our View: Losing faith in those managing our water

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials, who operate the Central Valley Project, relied on a faulty gauge in April and overestimated the amount of cold water behind Shasta Dam.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologists insisted that twin pulses totaling 35,000 acre-feet – enough for 12,000 acres of almonds or to supply 90,000 homes with water for a year – be sent down the Stanislaus River in April to push juvenile Chinook salmon toward the sea. But no Chinook salmon went with that water, according to a report from FishBio, which monitors our region’s rivers.

The release of so much water from New Melones was faulty judgment. The Shasta error was based on faulty equipment. Neither instills a great deal of confidence in those attempting to manage our water system through a time of extreme drought.

The Shasta mistake is cascading through the entire water system. Federal and state officials are compensating for the “instrument calibration error” by drastically reducing water being released from Shasta into the Sacramento River. Scientists say they must hold onto what’s left of the cold water in California’s largest reservoir until the fall to be used in a pulse flow to entice spawning salmon up the river.

But by cutting Shasta’s releases, downstream water system operators are being forced to release more from Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake. Those releases protect crops and water destined for Southern California by preventing salt water incursion into the Delta. By the end of this summer, Sacramento’s Folsom reservoir, about the size of Lake McClure, is expected to fall to 120,000 acre-feet – well below last year’s historic low. Oroville, which can hold 3.5 million acre-feet, will be at a quarter of capacity.

Meanwhile, to the south, the 2,500 landowners in the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority have fallowed more land this year than ever before – 40,000 acres. The authority is made up of four irrigation districts encompassing 240,000 acres in Fresno, Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties. They planted crops based on Bureau of Reclamation commitments that they’d get 350,000 acre-feet this year, or 40 percent of what would be a full allocation.

July is when the need to irrigate is greatest. But water system operators cannot transport water south if they hope to preserve what remains of the Delta ecosystem. That leaves farmers who planted annual crops with a choice: pump more groundwater, or let crops shrivel.

Farmers can lose a crop of tomatoes or alfalfa and rebound next season. But with the cost of water having risen steadily over the past decade, many have switched to permanent crops like almonds to recoup those added costs.

California’s role as leading farm state must be protected, but water use must be rethought

In 2010, the San Joaquin River authority had 23,962 acres planted in fruit, nuts and vines. By 2014, that number was up to 45,000 acres – primarily almonds, walnuts, pistachios and pomegranates, said executive director Steve Chedester. Without CVP water, growers will tap groundwater to save their trees. That means more drilling, more costs, more potential subsidence.

This is leading many people – especially non-farmers – to call for wholesale revision of the state’s water laws.

Before tossing aside 230 years of laws, rules and court decisions, it must be recognized that small farmers are at a horrible disadvantage when competing for water against larger, more well-funded entities. It also must be recognized that the best soils frequently have the most long-standing water rights, and to divorce the water from those soils will not only ruin family farms, but result in a waste of one of the state’s great assets.

In this drought, water managers have no room for faulty equipment or faulty judgment. Don’t compound the mistake with a hasty revision of our water laws.