Our View: Don’t make drought worse than it already is

January 25, 2014 

How serious is the Drought of ’14?

How about a billion dollars worth of serious. That’s just around here.

The drought is a statewide crisis. Our water districts have some stored water, so we’re marginally better off than south Valley farmers, who are thinning herds and fallowing fields. Still, our pastures are brown and close-cropped; our orchards and vineyards are dry. Not yet a catastrophe, once the trees begin to bloom farmers will have to pour on the water or the crop won’t set and that could crush yields.

We’ve seen droughts before. In 2008, losses ranged from 6.5 percent in San Joaquin County to 7 percent in Stanislaus and 18 percent in Merced, according to ag commissioner reports. But this drought is already worse. It’s early to guess, but Stanislaus Farm Bureau executive director Wayne Zipser says 10 percent is the in “reasonable range” for an assumption if it doesn’t rain.

What does 10 percent look like? The most recent figures (2012) show Stanislaus County with ag revenue of $3.27 billion, Merced $3.28 billion, San Joaquin $2.86 billion, or $9.41 billion for all three. Ten percent is close enough to $1 billion. But ag dollars roll through the economy at a 3-to-1 rate, meaning net losses could reach $3 billion. With roughly 1.5 million people living in a still-depressed region, that’s $2,000 each.

The effects will be wildly erratic. Cattle ranchers and dairies could suffer. But an almond farmer with water could cash in as nut prices soar. Only a few will hit that jackpot.

How could this get any worse? By taking the one thing we have at least a little of – water – and selling it.

That’s what Oakdale Irrigation District is considering. During a closed meeting that open government experts and The Bee believe could have been illegal under the Brown Act, OID on Thursday considered sending thousands of acre-feet of water down the Stanislaus River to Westlands Water District.

Transfers from districts that can spare water to those that have virtually none are appropriate. But Oakdale is denying some of its own farmers water to sustain nut trees planted outside the district. The district has no obligation, beyond that of being a good neighbor, to provide water for fields close to the district. But shouldn’t that be enough?

The OID board was much more forthcoming after its closed-door meeting on Thursday, reporting details from the Westlands proposal to a room packed with farmers and ranchers. Apparently, Westlands is offering $400 per acre-foot of water sent south. OID would send Stanislaus River water that would have irrigated pastureland – 4 feet per acre – to Westlands. The district would get $160 for each acre and the farmer $1,440.

The district has sold water before, in keeping with its long-term plan to use the money to modernize and repair its operations. But choosing a large-scale sale over an opportunity to help local farmers is short-sighted and ill-advised.

It might also be illegal.

OID is pumping thousands of acre-feet of groundwater – water from an aquifer possibly shared by those beyond the district – to supplement surface water used for irrigation. The Farm Bureau’s Zipser helped develop the county’s groundwater ordinance in 2013, and he said such pumping violates the spirit of the new law and possibly its letter.

If the district has surface water to sell, it shouldn’t be pumping. Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa called that water mining. So do we.

No doubt, Westlands farmers are desperate. But some brought this on themselves. Deliveries of Delta water to Westlands have never been consistent; some years they get 60 percent of their “allotment” and other years much less. This year they’ll get hardly any. Traditionally, they opted to plant annual crops so that when there was little water, they planted less. In recent years, many south Valley growers – including the hugely influential Paramount Farms, owned by Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick – have switched to planting more lucrative nut trees, which need water every year to stay alive.

If Oakdale, Turlock, Modesto, or other districts have enough surface water to help, then they should. But our irrigation districts are public entities, with a duty to serve the public in their districts. Oakdale’s farmers should get first dibs on excess water – at the same price others are willing to pay. After all, the value of whatever is grown here increases at that 3-to-1 ratio as it moves through our local businesses. Under no circumstances should OID be allowed to drain the county’s aquifers so that it it can send water south.

The California Department of Water Resources approves the state’s swater transfers and there are rules, including:

• A mitigation plan for unforeseen ramifications.

• A plan to investigate any ill effects.

• Funds set aside to cover the costs of those adversely affected.

• Groundwater transfers are allowed, but only if sellers have “technical evidence” that pumping won’t affect anyone else.

• Pumpers must provide California Environmental Quality Act documentation.

The state should make certain these rules, especially the last two, are met.

This drought could cause our region enormous economic hardship. No one should make it worse.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service