California ag water woes alive and kicking despite El Niño. Is policy to blame?

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California ag water woes alive and kicking despite El Niño. Is policy to blame?

With the El Niño weather phenomenon lingering lightly across the U.S. West Coast, many Californians have breathed a sigh of relief. The recent showers triggered by the weather anomaly so far this year could potentially aid the state's growers in the short term. But will they abate the accumulated effects of nearly five years of drought in the long term? At we caught up with water experts and local growers to find the answer.

Dennis Nuxoll

Dennis Nuxoll

Western Growers (WGA) vice president of federal government affairs, Dennis Nuxoll, said one year of stable weather conditions will not curb the long-term effects of the accumulated water shortage.

"California and most of the western United States has now been in some drought circumstance for the better part of a decade," Nuxoll said.

"California has been in drought for five consecutive years, then before there were two years of good moisture, then I think there were three or four years previous of drought to that.

"The Colorado River basin which provides water to seven or eight states I believe, and to agriculture in California, has been in drought 15 out of 17 years."

To put an end to California's dire water scarcity from an environmental perspective, the answer lies in boosting moisture.

"Until there is sustained higher-than-average moisture for several years, it's safe to say that the impact from the drought that we've been in will not be fully recuperated. The reason I say that is because California has been in such a severe circumstance on surface water, there has been severe pumping on groundwater.

"The only way that water is ever replenished is if you have sustained moisture. Rains percolate down and replenish the groundwater aquifers.  So one year of good moisture or above average moisture is not going to break the drought."

Nuxoll says the recent rains will serve as a respite, however.

"What you need is several years of sustained moisture in order to not only replenish the dams and reservoirs for surface water, but you also need that rain on a consistent basis to replenish the groundwater aquifers," he said.

Effects on production

Because of the lack of surface water, growers have been relying more heavily on groundwater to irrigate their crops. As a result, production has only seen mild affects.

The more critical issue at hand is the fact that growers are seeing declining net income and their profits challenged as a result of rising costs and fallowed cropland.

One example is local grower California Giant Berry.

"Most of our ground relies on well water and, like many other farmers during the drought, we have had to dig some wells deeper to access water for irrigation,"  said Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing at Giant Berry.

Nuxoll explains that in some cases, because of the length of the drought and the fact growers have had to pump the groundwater and build wells for so long, wells are not deep enough and growers have to dig deeper.

"As I said previously, we have now experienced this drought for years on end, and so some of the wells are getting dry because they aren’t tapped deep enough."

The Western Growers executive said in some cases, there had been so much intense pressure on these resources that the quality of the water received was quite low, which in turn affected productivity.

As a result, in the last two years California has seen hundreds of thousands of acres go fallow.

Another example is local table grape producer Pandol Bros Inc.

"In our case, we have some fallow land we rotate to cereal crops for a few years in between vineyards.  We will not plant or irrigate those acres," said John Pandol, director of special projects at Pandol Bros. Inc.

"We will use the quota from those acres on the permanent crops, and pump well water for the balance," he said.

Nuxoll said what people were doing was prioritizing their most profitable crops, factoring in irrigation costs.

"If you are a fruit and vegetable operation and you have a mixture of crops that you typically grow, you say, well what amount of water can I reasonably expect to secure this year through my own groundwater, through purchasing water from neighbors.

"And then you make a decision: I can reasonably expect "x" amount of water - what is the mixture of crops on my operation that is going to maximize my revenue?

"So what happens is, you let fallow crop that are going to be less lucrative: you look at the markets, you anticipate what prices are going to be for different crops, and instead of growing ten different crops on 1,000 acres, you grow five different crops on 500 acres," he said.

The second option for growers is to put their focus on their most lucrative crops.

"The other thing that you do depending on the kind of operation  you have is, let's say I have fruit trees, I have orchards, I have tree nuts… orchards or trees are more permanent than let's say field vegetables, so as a consequence you may have a deeper investment in an orchard. A 100-acre orchard I have a long-term investment there, versus 1,000 acres of a vegetable," Nuxoll said.

"So I need to decide, if I'm going to let all of my vegetable production fallow this year in order to save the water that I'm going to secure. The water that I have, I'm going to dedicate that water to making sure my orchards remain alive.

"So those are the kinds of decisions that are happening."

California Fresh Fruit Association president Barry Bedwell explained that for California growers, production revenue for fruits, vegetables and nuts in 2014 was not hampered - particularly for nut growers, which saw higher pricing - since their main source of irrigation was groundwater.

"But the more groundwater utilized and exploited, the deeper growers will need to go to obtain this resource, which in turn costs more money.

"As such, despite normal production, or even better production, net income is going down due to higher costs, and profits are being challenged.

"In 2015 numbers should be different for growers than those of 2014 because of these higher costs, which are affecting net income. And alternative sources of irrigation, such as desalinization, are not an option right now considering their high cost and absence of facilities," he said.

Nuxoll added that crop specific price performance did not tell the full story about the profitability of an operation.

"You can have very good price performance on, say 1,000 acres and leave 500 acres empty. The 500 acres that are in production on a crop specific basis, I might actually be getting more money on, say cauliflower comparing this year than last year.

"But that doesn't mean my farm is better off, because I had 500 acres that were empty. So that income is empty, plus the input cost of the water itself is more expensive."

In total, in their 'Economic Analysis of the 2015 Drought For California Agriculture', a group of analysts estimated the state's crop growers lost US$902 million in revenue last year because of the drought.

Short-term effects of El Niño

The El Niño rains seen through mid-January have both appeased and disappointed growers so far this year, with rainfall not reaching as high levels as was hoped and some harvests disrupted as well.

Looking on the bright side, Nuxoll explained how moisture levels picked up significantly due to the rains.

"Moisture levels across the west this year are pretty good; not only in California is moisture better than in previous years. And in the Colorado River basin there is more snow than there has been in the past, more snow-pack," he said.

"So all those things are good in the short term."

However, both Bedwell and Sun World International executive vice president David Marguleas were less optimistic about the short-term effects of the phenomenon.

"While we have seen some wet weather events, it's not nearly to the degree that was anticipated. We're in the middle of what would be a normal rainy season, so any precipitation is welcome, but as we get into March and into April and May, wet weather can have a negative impact on the crop," said Marguleas.

Bedwell said in the last few weeks there had been little rainfall, and none forecast for the next few weeks. Reservoir levels would rise this winter but they would still be way below capacities.

Pandol was also cautiously optimistic about the effects of the recent rains and those forecast for the coming months.

"As of mid-February, El Niño has not yet materialized in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Currently there is a little above rainfall for the water year and winter snow-pack in Northern California.

He said that rain on dormant grape vines was very positive and certainly helped replenish the groundwater basin.

"If El Niño materializes, we would expect much more rain than normal over the next three months. That is after bud break up to bloom and even after bloom. But rain during these periods has the potential to increase disease pressure and delay work in the vineyards," he said.

"But we're still a long way from catching up from the deficits in our reservoirs that have grown during the previous four years," he said.

Jewell at California Giant Berry said this had really been more of a typical rainy season for Californians as opposed to a weather anomaly.

"In a 'normal' weather year we do get rain during the winter months throughout the state. We have been able to harvest in Oxnard despite rain but the volume is down from drought years for January and February.

"We are expected to have El Niño conditions well into March which may push back the northern districts with early volume."

David Kranz from the California Farm Bureau Federation was slightly more optimistic.

He said there was still time for precipitation to catch back up to average if we saw a return of strong storms during the next five or six weeks.

He said the snow-pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range now stood at about three-quarters of average for the date, which was much better than levels seen a year ago at this time, when the snow-pack stood at only 17% of average.

But despite the improved rain and snowfall this winter, the state remains drier than average for the season to date.

"In many ways, the status of water supplies for 2016 California crops remains undetermined. We remain in the middle of our wintertime season when precipitation can accumulate, and the weather during the next few weeks will play a large role in determining the outlook.

"Having said that, many farmers in the Central Valley, and particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, expect continued constraints on water supplies this spring and summer.

"Average precipitation in one season won't by itself wipe out four previous years of very dry weather," he said.

Legislative bottlenecks

Since 2014, Californian organizations as well as members of the house delegation from California have backed California Senator Dianne Feinstein in an effort to push for a review on distribution efficiencies.

"[Western Growers] and other organizations across the west in these congressional offices continue to put forward a lot of effort to try to move a package of legislation that will help in the short, the medium and the long term to effectively impact the situation," Nuxoll said.

The issue at hand begins with California's intricate pipe system of aqueducts, dams and locks that redirect water flow from the moisture-rich north of the state to the south. This water would otherwise go into the ocean.

This water is then used in agricultural fields in the central valley as well as urban cities in southern California, such as Los Angeles.

"What the legislation in the short term is trying to do is maximize that flow so that less water is going out into the ocean and more water is flowing south," said Nuxoll.

So what's the key issue at hand for the WGA representative?

"The reason there is an impediment is the Endangered Species Act [ESA] is protecting endangered salmon," Nuxoll said.

"The salmon are all in northern California and use that river system, so you have to have a certain amount of water to make sure they don't go extinct. And then you have the minnow-like Delta smelt that live in the Delta system itself that use the fresh water to survive.

Nuxoll explained that there was a range of pumping volumes allowed under ESA.  Pump operations were limited and governed by the restrictions connected to the ESA.

"Within those restrictions there is an upper and lower bound of allowable pumping levels. At the lower end of the spectrum the federal agencies know by not pumping aggressively the fish are safe and there is little to no chance of them being harmed.

"At the upper end and more aggressive pumping levels the federal agencies still think the fish are safe but there is a higher risk factor associated with that pumping level.

He said the decision at what level to pump depended on the discretion of the federal agencies that ran the pumps - how conservative, how risk adverse they were within this allowable level of discretion. While both pumping rates - more aggressive or less so - were within the ESA pumping restrictions, by being more aggressive farmers got access to more water.

"The tension in the bill is centered around that even though both the House Republicans and the Senate Democrats from California are operating within those parameters. The House Republican proposals push pumping less to be almost certainly at the more aggressive end of the spectrum.

"By contrast, the Senate Democratic proposals encourage the pumping to be as aggressive as possible; they encourage the agencies they don't limit.  It's perhaps a subtle difference but the above is 'how' a balance in this specific example is being struck," Nuxoll said.

Pandol provides an example of how his water allocations have been impacted due to the ESA restrictions.

"The 'full allocations' in our case is in the range of 3.5 to 4 acre-feet per acre. That is enough to apply 1.1 to 1.3 meters of water over 4,000 sq meters of land.

"At this point Pandol has been guaranteed 0.7 to 0.8 acre feet or about 20% of full allocation. In the 1991 El Niño we had zero allocation in February but then we had the 'March Miracle' and we had 100% allocation six weeks later."

Bedwell says that if California were able to operate these pumps at a higher range, this could have the potential to curb the affects of the drought significantly.

Feinstein aims to tackle this conflict between humans and fish in the short-term.

In the long term, she and other congressmen involved in this issue aim to create a water system that is more resilient through improving infrastructure, such as building dams, according to Nuxoll.

"There have been negotiations occurring between the republicans and the democrats from California since 2014 about those two issues, about the proper balance between the environment and using the water resources," he said.

"Then there is also a negotiation going on about how much money should be allocated and what are the sources of money for these longer-term solutions. So that has been an ongoing negotiation within the California delegation."

"And because there is a drought in all these other western states, there is a variety of other western senators and congressmen from other states who have also been negotiating on things like dams and reservoirs and infrastructure and things like that, and are interested in pursuing that as well."

Nuxoll said at the moment there was a similarity between the very specific California items, and similar requests from other states in the western U.S. as a result of their drought situation.

"This means that there are more players at the table. California tends to grab the headline, and also it's about 50% of all the fruits and vegetables. But most of the other western states have very similar problems in terms of the need for infrastructure and dams and reservoirs, and they also have a drought.

"So there is a potential confluence between all the California concerns, and the media attention, and the interest of these other states. And that's especially important in the senate, where every state only gets two senators. So other states have a role," he said.

In the end, the drought is more a product of policy than a lack of rainfall, according to Pandol.

"The ad campaigns like 'a dirty car and a brown lawn are a badge of honor’ are still in place.  The conservation measures on residential and commercial users are still in place," he said.

In other words, the drought continues.

"Has the drought improved? From a water supply point of view, yes. From a public policy point of view, no.  California could have rains of Biblical proportions and there is no guarantee agriculture will be ‘allotted’ suitable water supply."

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