Consumers depend on a reliable supply of the fresh fruits and vegetables we grow here in the Central Valley. The produce aisle of any ordinary grocery store across the country is usually stocked with an unbelievable variety of nutritious food products, many of which are grown here in California. Our (usually) plentiful supplies of water, rich soils and one of the few Mediterranean climates on earth, make California farmers the envy of the world. These dedicated and efficient family farmers provide almost half of the nation's fresh produce and a much higher percentage during the winter months.
Studies show that Californians appreciate farmers. They like their food locally grown. No matter where you live there is likely something growing nearby. For those who value open space, farms on the edge of town provide a break from crowded urban development.
Now and possibly into the future a key part of our standard of living may be in jeopardy. In order to grow the healthful and affordable foods we find at the grocery store, farmers need reliable water supplies. Without them, California farms will produce less. That can affect consumers in a variety of ways from potentially higher food costs to fewer choices at the grocery store to a greater dependence on imported food from other countries. Water supply shortages don't just affect the people who grow our food, they affect everyone.
Since 1990, environmental laws have reallocated enough water annually to serve all of Silicon Valley for over five years away from farms, homes and businesses for environmental purposes our water system was never designed to accommodate. As a result, urban areas are facing difficulties filling their more severe water shortages. These cutbacks have had some of the biggest effects on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley where thousands of people have lost work in recent years and millions of dollars in crops have been lost because there hasn't been enough water to grow them.
While this has had some of the most damaging effects on farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, its impacts reach far and wide. California's fruit and vegetable production occurs in certain places during certain times of the year. The West Side is a major food supplier when farm production in other areas is absent. That's why recent water supply cuts ranging from 40 percent to 60 percent to as much as 90 percent can have a large impact on what grows where and when. The path forward is as important for consumers as it is for the farmers that grow our food.
In the past only one primary method to address delta-based environmental concerns was exercised and that was to restrict water deliveries. Restricting the water supply was and is seen as the way to protect fish, such as the endangered delta smelt and Chinook salmon, but it didn't work. Of all the billions of dollars spent and millions of acre-feet of water taken from food production, the sad fact is that fish populations in the delta continue to decline and the ongoing deterioration of the delta now threatens the water supplies of two-thirds of California residents.
What's needed is a comprehensive, science-based approach to manage our resources in a way that protects fish but still provides the water farmers need to stay productive. That path is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
The conservation plan will help enable public water agencies to deliver enough water so that farms can continue to grow crops, homeowners can wash and cook and clean, and employers can produce the goods and services that keep people employed and productive. The conservation plan will provide water supply and reliability benefits for more than 3,800 farms and millions of water users from the Bay Area to San Diego.
Scientists, engineers and water managers have been working on the conservation plan for seven years. It has been studied in greater detail than any other large public works project in the history of our state. It will protect California's water supply from earthquake impacts and climate change induced sea level rise. Ecosystem benefits for fish and many other native delta species will result from the creation of more than 100,000 acres of new tidal habitat.
The conservation plan will work in concert with existing California law. The California Constitution prevents this or any other project from having a negative impact on current water rights holders. Rules administered by the state Water Resources Control Board governing delta water quality will ensure compliance with downstream water user rights. Rules that protect water quality, in stream flow, salinity and the flow of water through the Bay-Delta will be strictly enforced. Adaptive management will assure that operations and ecosystem decisions are effective; otherwise they will be adjusted according to what science shows is the best course.
The Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts were among the first formed 125 years ago under new legislative authorization. At the time they were seen as an opportunity to invest in water projects that would help the region thrive. There are few examples of success greater than what was achieved by the visionaries who built these projects.
The conservation plan is that kind of project. It helps restore water supply reliability lost almost two decades ago in a failed attempt to help the environment. But a decision not to act, not to move forward, is also a decision. Deciding to do nothing means we are willing to accept failure as the new normal. We accept that the numbers of native fish in the delta will remain low and that many productive farms will remain crippled by uncertain water supplies. And we accept the notion that a greater dependence on other countries is OK when it comes to our food supply.
We are the beneficiaries of the hard work, dedication and investment of generations past. We owe it to future generations to restore the environment and to secure safe, reliable water supplies for food production and for California's economic prosperity. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is that overdue investment.
Nelson is executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, headquartered in Los Banos, which consists of almost 30 water agencies providing water to 1.2 million acres, most of it in the western San Joaquin Valley.