Water Conflict Rising Between Farmers, Cities In California

Agriculture Consumes 80 Percent Of Water In California 

Editor’s Note: California is America’s most populous state with about 39 million people. It just overtook Brazil as the seventh-largest economy in the world. It’s the fifth-largest supplier of food in the entire world. The drought in California is a global problem for many reasons.

As the worst drought in recorded history ravages California, and its cities face mandatory cuts in water use, thirsty crops like oranges, tomatoes and almonds continue to stream out of the state and onto the nation’s grocery shelves.

But the way that California farmers have pulled off that feat is a case study in the unwise use of natural resources, many experts say. Farmers are drilling water wells at a feverish pace and pumping billions of gallons of water from the ground, depleting a resource that was critically endangered even before the drought began.

California drought and climate change

California has pushed harder than any other state to adapt to climate change, but scientists warn that improving its management of precious groundwater supplies will shape whether it can continue to supply more than half the nation’s fruits and vegetables on a hotter planet.In some places, water tables have dropped 50 feet or more in just a few years. With less underground water to buoy it, the land surface is sinking as much as a foot a year in spots, causing roads to buckle and bridges to crack. Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor communities of water.

Scientists say some of the underground water-storing formations so critical to California’s future — typically, saturated layers of sand or clay — are being permanently damaged by the excess pumping, and will never again store as much water as farmers are pulling out.

wastewater treatment and disease

“Climate conditions have exposed our house of cards,” said Jay Famiglietti, a NASA scientist in Pasadena who studies water supplies in California and elsewhere. “The withdrawals far outstrip the replenishment. We can’t keep doing this.”

Cannon Michael, a farmer who grows tomatoes, melons and corn on 10,500 acres in the town of Los Banos, in the Central Valley, has high priority rights to surface water, which he inherited with his family’s land. But rampant groundwater pumping by farmers near him is causing some of the nearby land to sink, disturbing canals that would normally bring water his way.

“Now, water is going to have to flow uphill,” said Mr. Michael, who plans to fallow 2,300 acres this year.

In the midst of this water crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown and his legislative allies pulled off something of a political miracle last year, overcoming decades of resistance from the farm lobby to adopt the state’s first groundwater law with teeth. California, so far ahead of the country on other environmental issues, became the last state in the arid West to move toward serious limits on the use of its groundwater.

wastewater treatment and disease

Last week, Mr. Brown imposed mandatory cuts in urban water use, the first ever. He exempted farmers, who already had to deal with huge reductions in surface water from the state’s irrigation works. Mr. Brown defended the decision on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, saying, “They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America to a significant part of the world.”

In normal times, agriculture consumes roughly 80 percent of the surface water available for human use in California, and experts say the state’s water crisis will not be solved without a major contribution from farmers.

California drought map
California’s drought conditions have worsened even more since this chart was prepared last year.

California’s greatest resource in dry times is not its surface reservoirs, though, but its groundwater, and scientists say the drought has made the need for better controls obvious. While courts have taken charge in a few areas and imposed pumping limits, groundwater in most of the state has been a resource anyone could grab.

Yet putting strict limits in place is expected to take years. The new law, which took effect Jan. 1, does not call for reaching sustainability until the 2040s. Sustainability is vaguely defined in the statute, but in most basins will presumably mean a long-term balance between water going into the ground and water coming out. Scientists have no real idea if the groundwater supplies can last until the 2040s.

“I wish we could do it faster,” Mark Cowin, director of California’s Department of Water Resources, said in an interview. “I wish we would have started decades ago.”

But Mr. Cowin noted that the state, after neglecting groundwater management for so long, had a lot of catching up to do. Years of bureaucratic reorganization and rule-drafting lie ahead. “This is the biggest game-changer of California water management of my generation,” Mr. Cowin said.

California water reservoirs losing water

In the near term, as the drought wears on and the scramble for water intensifies, farmers are among the victims of the drilling frenzy, as well as among its beneficiaries.

Growers with older, shallower wells are watching them go dry as neighbors drill deeper and suck the water table down. Pumping takes huge amounts of electricity to pull up deep water, and costs are rising. Some farmers are going into substantial debt to drill deeper wells, engaging in an arms race with their neighbors that they cannot afford to lose.

“You see the lack of regulation hurting the agricultural community as much as it hurts anybody else,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

Against this backdrop, water-thirsty crops like almonds are still being planted in some parts of the Central Valley to supply an insatiable global demand that is yielding high prices.

The land devoted to almond orchards in California has doubled in 20 years, to 860,000 acres. The industry has been working hard to improve its efficiency, but growing a single almond can still require as much as a gallon of California’s precious water.

The expansion of almonds, walnuts and other water-guzzling tree and vine crops has come under sharp criticism from some urban Californians. The groves make agriculture less flexible because the land cannot be idled in a drought without killing the trees.

Not even the strongest advocates of water management foresee a system in which California farmers are told what they can plant. As the new system evolves, though, the growers might well be given strict limits on how much groundwater they can pump, which could effectively rule out permanent crops like nuts and berries in some areas.“We want to be careful in dealing with this drought not to go down the command-and-control route if we can avoid it,” said Daniel Sumner, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis. “It interrupts the flexibility, the creativity and the resilience that people in agriculture have already been using to deal with severe water cutbacks.”So far, the over-pumping of groundwater has helped farmers manage through three parched growing seasons.

They were forced to idle only about 5 percent of the state’s irrigated land last year, though the figure is likely to be higher in 2015. The farmers have directed water to the highest-value crops, cutting lesser crops like alfalfa.

They have bought and sold surface water among themselves, making the best use of the available supply, experts like Dr. Sumner say. And the farmers’ success at coping with the drought has meant relatively few layoffs of low-income farmworkers.

Still, costs are up and profits are down for many farmers and the thousands of small businesses that depend on them, spreading pain throughout the Central Valley and beyond. “It’s been a tough couple of years, and it’s just getting tougher in rural parts of California,” said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, a growers’ organization.

Because groundwater has helped keep production up, replacing a large proportion of the surface water farmers have lost, the drought has not led to big price increases at the national level, even for crops that California dominates.

Once the drought ends, a growing population and a climate altered by human-caused global warming will continue to put California’s water system under stress, experts say. A major question is how to manage the groundwater to get Californians through dry years.

Meeting that goal may have as much to do with how surface water is managed as with how much is pumped from the ground.

Several California experts used the metaphor of a bank account to describe the state’s groundwater supply. Deposits need to be made in good times, they said, so that the water can be withdrawn in hard times.

Yet for decades, California farmers have been overdrawing many of the state’s water-holding formations — its aquifers — even in years when surface water for irrigation was plentiful, the equivalent of overdrawing a checking account.

That will need to change, the experts said, with pumping being limited or even prohibited in wet years so that the underground water supply can recharge. Some land may need to be flooded on purpose so the water can seep downward.

The need for groundwater recharge may ultimately limit how much water farmers can have from the surface irrigation system, even in flush years — the same way that deposits in a bank account limit how many fancy dinners one can eat. Yet in a state where irrigation rights have been zealously guarded for generations, such limitations may not go down easily.

“It would be silly to think you are not going to have any fights,” said Denise England, the water expert for Tulare County, toward the southern end of the Central Valley. She cited an aphorism of the West: “Whiskey’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting over.”

Sustainable City News via http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/06/science/beneath-california-crops-groundwater-crisis-grows.html?emc=edit_th_20150406&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=59791470&_r=0

Seeking Climate Leadership In California

California In The Cross Hairs Of Climate Change

Tom Steyer isn’t the only ambitious fundraiser working to get climate hawks elected. Meet Nick Josefowitz. Both men live in San Francisco, but while Steyer is playing on the national scene, Josefowitz is focused on his home state. He recently founded a new political action committee, Leadership for a Clean Economy, to raise money for future leaders on climate change policy in the California state legislature. Josefowitz made his fortune founding RenGen Energy, a developer and operator of solar power plants, and at the age of 30 he has already retired to focus on environmental activism.

nicholas josefowitz
Climate warrior Nicholas Josefowitz.

LCE is similar to organizations like EMILY’s List in that it does not actually collect and disburse money itself. Rather, it examines candidates and recommends the most worthy ones to a network of donors who can then make direct contributions. In California, such contributions from an individual to a candidate are limited in size to $4,100. Some PACs raise and spend unlimited amounts to promote candidates, but Josefowitz decided not to go that route. “We think raising money directly for candidates is more effective,” he tells Grist. “Candidates know more about how to spend their money. If you do an independent expenditure, the first thing you do is spend $30,000 on a consultant, which is money straight down the drain.” Indeed, many PACs, especially on the right, have been caught spending most of the money they raise on operational expenses rather than activities that directly help candidates.

Given that the Democrats hold wide majorities in the California State Assembly and State Senate, it may seem odd for LCE to focus environmental dollars there. Shouldn’t the environmental movement’s top priority be helping Democrats hang on to the U.S. Senate and regain seats in the U.S. House?

“It is clearly important to stop the Koch brothers-funded Republicans from taking over the Senate,” Josefowitz wrote in an MSNBC op-edlast week, but even if Democrats succeed in that mission, “we will have another two years of bitter, partisan trench warfare in Congress without any progress.” Until the political climate changes in D.C., we have to focus on the states, where things actually get done, he argues.

But California already has the most advanced clean energy standards in the country, so why spend money and effort there? “California is one of the states that has done the most, but it hasn’t done nearly enough,” says Josefowitz. “If all the states in the Union looked like California today, we’d still have an extremely long way to go. California still needs to keep pushing the envelope. A lot of the things California is most famous for — for example, its 33 percent renewable portfolio standard, cap-and-trade, the low-carbon fuel standard — sunset in 2020. We need to set more aggressive targets for 2020, 2030, 2040 and ‘50.” Also, California is huge — if it were its own country, it would be the world’s eighth largest economy. And where California leads, other states follow. A dozen other states have chosen to adopt California’s ambitious fuel-economy standards for cars, for example.

Josefowitz believes it’s insufficient to have a state legislature full of Democrats who vote the right way on the environment. The climate crisis demands more than just passive supporters in the majority; it needs leaders who will write bills, garner public attention, and corral votes. In California, thanks to term limits that hold every legislator to no more than 12 years in office, senators and assembly members can quickly become leaders, without having to wait decades to assume powerful positions like in most states or in Congress. That means eco-minded campaign donors can get a lot more bang for the buck in California than on the national stage.

“Because of the constant turnover in Sacramento because of term limits, electing one or two dedicated climate leaders can have an impact that it won’t in D.C.,” says Josefowitz, who speaks with an English accent left over from a childhood in London. Born in New York, he is an American citizen, but he only moved to San Francisco two and a half years ago. On the East Coast, where Democratic urban machines are often deeply entrenched, it might be hard for a newcomer like Josefowitz to have an impact. But in California, he is already ensconced in a network of wealthy, eco-friendly donors.

And so Josefowitz has set out to find candidates who might play the role in California’s state legislature that Californian Henry Waxman has played in Congress: the environment’s indefatigable advocate and master legislator. Since state legislators cannot spend decades working on an issue in Sacramento, it’s critical that they come in with an understanding of complex sustainability issues and policies, Josefowitz argues. This year, only two candidates, both running for Assembly, have earned LCE’s support: Suja Lowenthal, a member of the Long Beach City Council, and Joe Krovoza, the mayor of Davis. Winning LCE’s approval is arduous, requiring the candidates to demonstrate both knowledge and achievement on the issues, through a series of interviews and questionnaires. The vetting is done by Josefowitz and LCE’s sole employee, Political Director Rachel Van Wert, with input from donors in the network.

 

“It was almost like they were doing opposition research,” jokes Krovoza. He won them over with his deep environmental knowledge. He was able to tick off a litany of climate actions he has taken in Davis, such as setting a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and requiring solar panels and bike crossings as conditions of approving a new mixed-use development. And even while serving as mayor, Krovoza has continued his work as director of external relations for the Institute of Transportation Studies at U.C. Davis. “I know the Sustainable Communities law and AB 32 inside and out,” boasts Krovoza, referring to the California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law, which promotes smart growth, and the Global Warming Solutions Act, which created the state’s cap-and-trade system.

LCE has had a tangible impact on Krovoza’s campaign. “I’ve raised about $300,000; I think they’re at about $30,000 for me,” he says. “And they’re cranking away. They’re calling all the environmentalists we can identify in the district. That’s been huge for me. They’ve been my advocates in the environmental community in the district. Some of the environmentalists are active in the Democratic Party. Some of them have volunteered to walk [knocking on doors for the campaign], some have volunteered to put up a road sign.”

Krovoza was introduced to Josefowitz by Bob Epstein, who sits on the board of the Institute of Transportation Studies and chairs the NRDC Action Fund. “When Nick said he was interested in developing environmental champions, I said, ‘Great idea,’” recalls Epstein. “There are very few politicians now who are well versed in issues. They tend to float at the conceptual level and rarely know the details. Every cycle in the California legislature there is less leadership [on the environment].” Frequently, state legislators are more focused on running for higher office than on getting things done in Sacramento. Those are the kinds of candidates LCE avoids.

Josefowitz has found his climate leaders for 2014; his PAC won’t be endorsing any more people this year. Now he’ll be looking out for the next batch of promising politicians.

Source: http://grist.org/politics/this-man-is-on-the-hunt-for-californias-next-climate-leaders/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=tweet&utm_campaign=socialflow#.U2GP6k08adM.twitter