We all know Mark Twain’s three kinds of untruths: Lies, damned lies and statistics.
The State Water Resources Control Board is telling some statistical whoppers as it tries to justify its impending water grab.
The state’s statisticians and computers created their numbers. But we’ll stick to the back of an envelope. See which numbers you find more plausible.
Start with this: $1.01 billion. That could come out of our pockets.
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Some background. Two years ago, a water board study proposed four scenarios for increasing the “unimpaired flows” on the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Many disputed those numbers, so the board has promised an update expected in March. By November, many feel the board will make its demands for more water to be sent down our rivers.
The state will tell us that taking the water is for our own good. They’ll say decreasing what we use and increasing the amount that flows to the Delta and beyond will make our rivers healthier, save the salmon (which have all but disappeared) and make the Delta less salty.
But the state will likely ignore the part about devastating our economy. So we’ll remind them of the four scenarios they offered in 2012:
▪ Do nothing, leaving flows where they are – roughly 20 percent on the Merced, 30 percent on the Stanislaus and 17 percent on the Tuolumne, which all leaves the area.
▪ Increase unimpaired flows to 20 percent; this affects only the Tuolumne, whose unimpaired flow would increase by 25 percent. Inconceivably, the state says this would add 12,280 irrigated acres in the region and increase farm profits by $9 million. Less water; more crops – that only works in a computer game.
▪ Increase flows to 40 percent for all rivers, which will double what flows down the Merced. Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation would give up a third more water. The Tuolumne’s increase would be 150 percent. The state says this would fallow 66,500 acres in Stanislaus, Merced and south San Joaquin counties at a cost of $40 million. That figure is pure fantasy – putting the profit from each acre at only $600. Farmers don’t break even at $600.
▪ Increase flows to 60 percent, tripling the Merced’s unimpaired flows, doubling what goes down the Stanislaus and quadrupling the Tuolumne’s flows. The state says this would remove 155,720 acres from production, costing the region $124 million. That means the state figures those prime acres generate only $800 each. Hmm.
A glance at Merced County’s crop report shows the idiocy of that number. Ag commissioner David Robinson says roughly 700,000 acres were harvested in 2013, generating $3.79 billion. That works out to about $5,414 per acre – nearly seven times the state’s figure. It’s a reasonable figure. Don’t forget, all the land to be fallowed would be in Merced Irrigation District – some of the most fertile in the region.
It gets worse. The farm bureau and others dispute the impact of 40 percent flows, putting the fallowed number at 100,000 acres for the region – ranging from $6,400 to $5,400 in value. That puts losses at over $540 million.
Don’t stop there. As farm dollars get spent, they multiply at a rate of 3.5, according to a UC Davis study. So the minimum $540 million becomes $1.9 billion.
What if the state demands 60 percent flows? Local experts say the region will fallow 210,000 acres – costing $1.4 billion at the farmgate. With the multiplier that’s a $4.8 billion hit in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
OK, we admit that’s an unlikely worst-case scenario.
In reality, farmers are inventive and resilient people. Deprived of water they won’t give up. Instead, they’ll spread whatever water they get over more acres by planting crops that need less moisture. That won’t include as many almond trees. Growing nuts requires 42 inches of water a year. With the cuts, Merced Irrigation Districts figures it could lose 70,000 acre-feet of water in dry years. That’s more water than is sitting in Lake McClure today.
Farmers will likely begin pulling trees so they can spread the water across more acres of less thirsty crops. But an acre of tomatoes is 54 percent less profitable than an acre of almonds. Melons are 79 percent less profitable, wheat 85 percent.
Substituting 60,000 acres of almonds for tomatoes, melons or veggies will create losses of roughly $300 million. Add the multiplier effect and our region will have lost $1.05 billion. There are roughly 1.1 million people living in the three river basins. Each one will be $1,000 poorer. And that doesn’t count losses in hydro-power generation or the fact that 37 percent of jobs in this area are ag-related.
Without water, the value of the land falls, reducing taxes to pay for everything from public safety to education.
Meanwhile, the rivers that once watered our orchards and fields will be diverted to the delta pumps. The report notes $63 million for pumps to help lift all that water over the Middle River fish barriers, which would allow it to be pulled directly into the larger pumps near Tracy.
Everyone who lives here has a stake in this – farm bureaus, the five irrigation districts, jobs agencies, chambers of commerce, county supervisors, city councils.
“Under this proposal, the Valley will annually lose hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural economic activity,” said MID general manager John Sweigard. “Tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land will be fallowed in Merced County alone.”
Clearly the state’s farmer fantasy models are worthless. And we need better than back-of-envelope calculations.
UC Merced might help, or California State University, Stanislaus. Such studies aren’t cheap, but that shouldn’t deter us. We need to show the devastating impacts of this water grab. We need legislators to know the state isn’t just taking water, it’s endangering our livelihoods, our homes and our futures.
Then, if the state won’t listen, perhaps the courts will.