Drought Drags On: Perspectives from Stakeholders

On February 27, 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state drought emergency and urged Californians to cut their water use by 20 percent. As of April 1, state reservoirs were still below average with Shasta Lake at 63 percent of capacity and Lake Oroville at 56 percent. (Average reservoir capacity for April 1 is 77 percent for Shasta and 72 percent for Oroville).

In a University of California-Davis report, “Economic Impacts of Reduction in Delta Exports on Central Valley Agriculture” researchers say revenue losses to Central Valley farmers could total $1.6 billion this year because of water shortages. The study’s three authors, Richard Howitt, Duncan MacEwan, and JosuĂ© MedellĂ­n-Azuara also say that more than 60,000 workers across the Central Valley could lose their jobs due to dwindling water.

West Fresno County farmer Bill Diedrich says the drought has caused him to take “a lot of extraordinary efforts to secure water.” He fallowed land in order to transfer that water to permanent crops. And since the last wet year in 2006, Diedrich’s been pushing water forward, storing it in banks, going to extraordinary efforts in anticipation of the day when he “might” (in a worst-case scenario) get as little as a 25 percent allocation. Thanks to those forward thinking measures, he has water secured to get him through 2009’s crop production. “With the amount of money we’ve had to spend for water this year, it won’t be a profitable year,” he said, “it will be a survival year.”

Not everyone will survive.

The communities on the far western water districts that have the Central Valley Project (CVP) contracts are still at 0 allocations. “San Joaquin, Tranquility, Firebaugh, Mendota... all these little towns on the west side fed by economic activity brought about by water delivered by the Bureau of Reclamations water service contracts are devastated,” Diedrich said. “This is our Katrina for this area--not as devastating as a 24-hour event; more like a 12-month event.”


“This is our Katrina for this area--not as devastating as a 24-hour event; more like a 12-month event.”

--Bill Diedrich, Fresno County farmer


But it is not just the drought that is the problem. Diedrich and the other farmers are facing two issues: the drought and additional regulations on exporting water from the Delta. “It’s a double whammy,” Diedrich said. “Like the perfect storm. We have lost export opportunities in the Delta because of the pumping restrictions that even with this year’s flows would have probably been enough to provide us with 15 percent allocation.”

Some stakeholders have a different perspective.

“This year’s moderate drought conditions are not in and of themselves a problem for the environment of the Bay-Delta estuary and its watershed,” said Gary Bobker, Program Director of The Bay Institute, a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the ecosystems of San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the estuary’s tributary watershed. “What is causing major problems for the Bay-Delta’s endangered aquatic species and habitats is how unwisely water has been managed during the drought.”

Unfortunately, Bobker said, the environment will pay the price for what he believes are “unsustainable water management practices.”

“Current modeling indicates that temperature conditions for winter-run and fall-run chinook salmon in the Sacramento River this summer will be worse than those experienced in the final years of the much more severe 1987-1992 drought,” Bobker said. “Both salmon upstream and resident species downstream must pay for high diversions and bad management over the last two years. For species close to extinction, like delta smelt, this payment could be the last one.”

In response to the drought, DWR drought officials report that 18 agencies in California have already implemented some form of mandatory water conservation measure and that voluntary conservation measures have been adopted by 57 agencies.

Contra Costa Water District, the largest municipal water contractor of the CVP is requiring conservation from its customers as well. During a public hearing April 1, the district board approved a 15 percent drought management program to aid in water conservation efforts.

“We’re not raising our rates,” said Jennifer Allen, spokesperson for the district. “We’re focusing on our larger water users-specifically outdoor water use. Customers that use over 1000 gallons per day will be required to meet 15 percent conservation. If they don’t meet it, they will be charged excess use charges on the amount they exceed their budget.”

For customers who use less than 1000 gallons a day, if they increase their use from their historical average water use (2005, 2006, and 2007) they would be subject to excess charges, Allen said. Since voluntary conservation began in 2008, that year was not included in the historical water use. The Drought Management Program begins May 1.