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March 17, 2021

Future Water Supply Elicits Some Optimism But Cuts Appear Inevitable

By Tim Linden

Water has long been listed as one of the two most important elements when considering the future of California farming. Agricultural experts often put it at the top of the list or sometimes in second place with labor issues edging it out.

There is some optimism about the labor situation moving forward as there appears to be momentum for federal immigration reform with the new administration and there is also a lot of technological innovation that promises to reduce the need for labor with automation. But what about water? What are the prospects that future generations of California farmers will have a reliable water supply and an affordable rate?

Gail Delihant, who is senior director of California Government Affairs for Western Growers with water issues in her portfolio, said that is the question that farmers need answered. It is the $64,000 question. She said Western Growers members are of course interested in the details. Will there be new above-ground storage facilities built? How much groundwater will they be able to use? Will there be new conveyance infrastructure to get more water through and around the Delta? What environmental hurdles need to be jumped? But at the end of the day, she said it boils down to cost and availability.

WG&S discussed this basic question with more than a handful of players in the California water game including several water district representatives and water association executives. What emerged was a consensus that the current effort to forestall regulatory action by signing 15-year Voluntary Agreements between governmental agencies and the water districts to provide water for habitat restoration while studying that effort is critical to moving forward. Virtually all of those interviewed also expressed guarded optimism that new infrastructure will be part of the long-range solution and that production agriculture will always be part of the California landscape. However, there appeared to be a realization that some productive farmland—including a significant amount in the San Joaquin Valley—will have to be transitioned to other uses or fallowed as part of the solution. There was also disagreement about just how positive a spin one should put on the prospects of supply certainty if it means further reductions. Should the proverbial half-full glass of water be celebrated or bemoaned.

Following are the boiled down viewpoints of seven water experts. They are presented here in the order in which the interview occurred, denoting no bias of importance of the affiliation.

Jennifer Pierre, general manager, State Water Contractors

The SWC is a voluntary association of 27 of the 29 public water agencies that are State Water Project contractors. The association provides representation for the group concerning legal, policy and regulatory matters dealing with the project. Pierre said SWC is moving down many different parallel tracks with the ultimate goal of preserving and increasing the water supply of its members, which, in turn, serve agriculture and urban users alike. She said the group is focused on many areas including infrastructure changes and improvements, better managements of water flow using sound science to guide those decisions, and increasing Delta outflow.

Concerning the Delta, Pierre presented a viewpoint early in the discussion that was echoed by virtually every interviewee: the current system of managing water through the Delta simply doesn’t work. It reduces the flow of water for agriculture and other users, increases the amount of used water that flows out to the Pacific Ocean, and has had no beneficial effect on fish populations. It’s a lose, lose, lose.

She focused much of the interview on the Voluntary Agreements work that SWA and water agencies have been working on for more than a year. “We’ve done a ton of work and are now ready for the state to take a leadership role.”

Pierre explained that if the state and federal agencies sign off on this approach, the voluntary agreements will create a collaborative system to managing the flow in and out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta. The goal is that sound science and creative thinking will replace “the complete spaghetti bowl of litigation” that is in the works. The State Water Quality Control Board would be one of the agencies accepting the negotiated voluntary agreements in lieu of its mandatory regulations. The goal is that a 15-year plan can be put in place and carefully studied while assuring that State Water Project contractors of some certainty concerning the amount of water they will get each year, based on availability.

Pierre would like to see the initial framework endorsed soon so that the hard work of hammering out the details can begin and conclude as soon as the end of 2021. She admits the devil will be in the details but the alternative is not sustainable and that is that two million acre-feet of water be used to flow through the delta and out to sea for a fish benefit that has not been scientifically vetted. She admits that how much water is needed for habitat restoration is unknown, but the voluntary agreements will call for the water agencies to deliver a specific amount of water for that purpose. In the initial framework 700,000 acre-feet in aggregate has been proposed.

She said the long term goal would be to have another 15-year plan in place long before this one would expire, which would be based on the learnings over the coming years. Pierre expressed a high degree of optimism that “relatively soon,” the approach will be approved by state and federal officials and that a deal will be reached by the end of 2021.

Brent Walthall, assistant general manager, Kern County Water Agency

KWCA was created in 1961 to serve as the local contracting entity for the State Water Project.

Walthall takes a pragmatic view of the future of water for California agriculture. He said regardless of the source of the water, regulators are in charge of what a farmer will receive. In recent years, they have tightened supplies and he does not expect that trend to be reversed. Consequently, he believes the focus should be on dealing with regulators and their rules and try to exact some certainty to future supplies so that growers can plan accordingly. “Anything we can do to add stability to our supplies is worth pursuing,” he said, adding that he knows it’s a herculean task, but if farmers are given certainty they will adapt.

The Kern County water specialist is optimistic that the long-awaited 2019 biological opinions (Endangered Species Act permits) with respect to the operation of California’s federal water projects will be put into place and will be the regulations by which water providers are guided. Biological opinions are to federal projects as incidental intake permits are to the State Water Project. In each case, the document informs how the flow of water impacts endangered species and informs the flow amount.

Walthall believes the 2019 biological opinions were the result of sound science. He called them “pretty fair and down the middle,” meaning that they equally balanced the position of environmentalists versus that of water providers and users. While his opinion of the biological opinions might be fairly representative of the constituency he represents, those opinions were widely criticized by the environmental community, and the state of California sued the federal government to block their implementation. Walthall is hopeful that the biological opinions will be upheld by the Biden Administration’s water regulators and litigation can be averted. He expressed some level of confidence that the competing stakeholders can work this out administratively now that there is not such adversarial relationship between California officials and federal officials.

While the biological opinions are an entity of themselves, they would be part of any voluntary agreements reached between the water agencies and government officials. Again, Walthall said reaching an agreement is critical as it will lead to at least a 10-15 year period of water stability, which he believes is golden. With a water stable environment, he believes it is possible to move forward on some water infrastructure efforts including delta conveyance and the Sites Reservoir project. “If both of those things happen, the future will look much better for agricultural production,” he said.

He did add that a very important part of the equation is the ultimate cost of any project and if it can deliver water at an economically viable rate. He did express optimism about the public’s appetite to support water bonds, noting that they have typically passed such bonds.


Thomas Birmingham, general manager, Westlands Water District

Westlands serves farmers and rural communities on the westside of Fresno and King counties and is the largest provider to water to agricultural users in the state.

“There isn’t any question that water supply for agriculture is a significant challenge,” he said repeating an oft-heard comment from all the experts. “Over the last three decades, there has been a significant reallocation from agricultural use to environmental use.”

Birmingham expects that trend to continue with the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). “As much as 20% of the land in the San Joaquin Valley will have to be fallowed to comply with the requirements of SGMA.”

But he believes there is potential hope on the horizon as he also points to the 2019 biological opinions and believes the reliance on real-time monitoring is a step forward. He said if all sides are serious about protecting endangered species a new approach must emerge as the one being used for a generation has not been successful. Birmingham is also optimistic that the voluntary agreements will be the path forward offering stability for farmers and breathing room so the best available science can be utilized to logically balance the needs of people with those of endangered species. He noted that if large amounts of land have to be fallowed, the economic impact on California will hit heaviest on disadvantaged communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley. He said a UC Berkeley report estimated that California could take a $7.2 billion hit to its economy with 42,000 ag-related jobs being lost.

He said the voluntary agreements represent a collaborative rather than regulatory approach and expressed confidence that state, federal agencies, environmentalists and business stakeholders will be able to reach an accord. In early February, he expressed optimism that “within a matter of weeks” the industry would be able to present its work to the government agencies and create a framework to move forward on those agreements.

Birmingham also expressed optimism that there will be new infrastructure projects to help California agriculture on the supply. He ticked off several on-going projects that Westlands is involved in—including on with the Friant Water Authority—that will increase water availability. He also took a holistic view of the future of California agriculture. “California farmers can produce greater yields with fewer inputs than any other farmers in the world.”

He said it is a matter of national security that we produce our own food and he indicated that that fact will carry weight at the end of the day. “There are real challenges but there are real solution,” he opined.

Jason Phillips, CEO, Friant Water Authority

Friant maintains the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal, 36-mile Madera Canal, Friant Dam, and Millerton Lake.

Phillips was the least optimistic of all those interviewed. Like others, he believes the voluntary agreements do offer a path forward but he said that path has been meandering in the same directions for decades, which means less water for agriculture. “The problem that I have seen over the last 20 years is that California water agencies, which are run by hired help, are continually forced to cut deals that in the short term give up water supplies with no long-term supply commitment.”

He said these five-, 10- and 15-year deals may look good to water agency staff, but farmers, who often trace their roots back many generations, need to take a longer view…and it doesn’t exist. “We may have to agree to a deal even if it’s not a particularly good deal. Once again, they have their guns to our heads,” he said talking metaphorically about those who don’t have agriculture’s best interest at heart.

Phillips reminded that this latest voluntary agreement effort replaces a joint plan that was submitted by the water industry to regulators in 2018. “We (Friant board) unanimously supported that because it was good for our member agencies and it limited the losses. But it was not adopted by the State Water Control Board. Now we’re back again. Whatever is agreed to, it is guaranteed it will be worse for farmers.”

He is not certain the Friant board will support such an agreement. But Phillips admits the alternative is a cadre of lawyers in courts filing litigation and spending money that could be better used improving the water supply. Phillips believes that farmers, who ultimately pay that bill, must engage in this fight to secure their own future. “We need to lock in supplies for 50 years, not just 15,” he said.

The Friant executive does support a collaborative approach but he said it needs to think longer term and with regulatory lock-in of supplies and committed political leadership. He said if that can occur, growers can move forward with certainty and help plan California’s agricultural future. He does not believe solving the state’s water issues are a top priority for California’s political leaders, which informs his lack of optimism moving forward. He said it has become conventional wisdom that San Joaquin Valley has to reduce its agricultural acreage by a significant amount. Phillips believes that viewpoint represents failure.

“We need the support of the farming community to get the governor or the next governor to partner with us to create water balance,” he said.

David Guy, president, Northern California Water Association

NCWA represents water districts, water companies, small towns, rural communities and landowners that use both surface and groundwater resources in the Sacramento Valley.

Guy focused his remarks on what he called a “game changer” and that is reactivating the flood plains in Sacramento Valley as the best place to re-invigorate fish and wildlife populations. “I feel we have an opportunity to re-imagine our water system,” he said.

He is taking the approach that improving fish and wildlife habitat is not at odds with increasing water supplier for agriculture and other users. He is basically arguing that the Sacramento Valley is the best place to accomplish that task, which could arguably reduce the need for mitigation efforts in the Delta. In fact, NWCA is moving forward on this project and he said preliminary results are that only a few inches of water in the flood plains creates a plethora of bugs that allow for fish and wildlife to proliferate in the area. Salmon, for example, can then move downstream in huge numbers. He claims to have substantial buy-in on this plan for environmental groups. “This will improve the salmon population and take pressure off of ag water suppliers,” he said.

As Guy looks down the road, he sees positives for his member agencies and users. He believes Sites Reservoir is an incredible asset for agriculture that will also provide water for environmental uses. He adds that flood plain reactivation can lead to more water being available to recharge ground water aquifers. He calls the voluntary agreements the mechanism to bring all these activities together and work toward solving California’s water problem. He believes the 15-year length of those agreements will allow his group and others to prove their theories and sign longer agreements.

Back to flood plain reactivation, Guy calls it’s the “transformative piece” with no downside.

Weighing in on the future of ag in California, he believes there is no alternative path. He said the three elements of life are land, water and sun of which California has an abundance. He takes it as gospel that others do an will embrace this reality and agriculture will continue to thrive.

Thad Bettner, general manager, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District

Glenn-Colusa is the largest irrigation district in Sacramento Valley.

Bettner declares he is optimistic about agriculture’s future in California but at the same time, he said he does not see expansion and even maintaining the status quo will be a challenge. But he thinks the future is brighter than it was 10 years ago. He said SGMA, which was passed in 2014, gives growers in his service area some level of knowledge that they did not have before. They can plan for the future, though he does expect some ag land throughout the state to be converted to other uses. But he argued that some of those uses will offer a return such as solar fields and even getting paid for converting land for environmental use. He also admitted that is optimism for the future of agriculture in his district is guided by the fact that more water falls in his district than in other regions of the state.

Bettner does believe the flood plain reactivation could provide some relief to water providers as it could alleviate some pressure on restoration of habitats in other areas. He also firmly supports the voluntary agreements path has a way to give some certainty for at least 15 years. He said the process allows all side to come together and prioritize needs in a give and take manner. “That is what we (water providers) do every day. We manage trade-offs.”

He added that the process is at a significant cross-road. “This is a pretty significant point of time. We either go in this direction or we head down a regulatory path, which doesn’t help the environment. It is our opinion that it is now up to the state to start moving this. Governor Newsom needs to put someone in charge of it.”

Bettner said his optimism for the future of California agriculture is also driven by the investment community. “People are investing lots of money,” he said. “They must believe there is a path forward.”

He also advocated for more involvement by farmers. “Landowners have to be engaged,” he said, adding that he is buoyed by the new generation of college-educated farmers who do want to be more involved.

Jeff Kightlinger, general manager,  Metropolitan Water District

Los Angeles-based MWD is the largest water provider in the state with most of its users being urban dwellers but it does service several ag community in the Southland.

Kightlinger did acknowledge that the state and agriculture is facing many water challenges for a variety of reasons. He listed climate change as one of the biggest challenges. MWD gets its water from two sources: the Rockies through the Colorado River and the Sierras through the state and federal California water projects. The Rockies, he said, are definitely experiencing a cut back in precipitation, which means less water in the Colorado River. He said the change in the Sierras appears to be less snowpack and more rainfall. That reality, he said has to be managed with more storage and better conveyance. He indicated these two issues can be solved but it’s going to take money. At the present time, he indicated urban dwellers are feeling an acute need and so they don’t appear to be willing to subsidize expensive infrastructure projects. Agriculture has the need but the cost could be prohibitive.

He said the past three California governors have said they want to address California’s water situation but none have given that topic the priority status it needs to accomplish the task. Kightlinger and MWD have been materially involved in the voluntary agreements path and believes that direction is a necessity, largely to give stakeholders an additional 15 years to focus on the bigger picture, which is the infrastructure that is sorely needed. Like others, he believes the ball is in Governor Newsom’s court and will take his involvement to get over the hump and make the voluntary agreements a necessity. “The water community has put together a credible approach, but we have gone about as far as we can go.”

He admits that signing on to the voluntary path is not without its risk to the governor as he will take flak from some in the environmental community, which is one of his natural constituencies.

Speaking specifically of agriculture as a very knowledgeable observer of the state’s water situation, said the industry does have its challenges. Agriculture, he said, does have to deal with SGMA, which will reduce availability of ground water. He indicated agriculture is going to need new infrastructure to survive without severe acreage cutbacks. He did say the construction of Sites Reservoir as well as the expansion of several other reservoirs are viable projects that will help the water supply over time.