water reservoir
(Photo: yhelfman / Shutterstock.com)

By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics

The Water Association of Kern County held their Water Summit May 19th after a two year hiatus due to Covid. The Summit featured more than a dozen speakers covering a wide range of water-related topics. Most indicative of the Summit perhaps was the response to a question from CSUB Economics Professor and panel chair, Dr. Aaron Hedge, who asked his panel if there was any good news for Kern County. The panelists were silent, unable to provide a solitary answer, prompting nervous laughter from the audience. Finally, Dr. Alvar Escriva-Bou from the Public Policy Institute of California, responded with “SGMA” (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that is forcing land fallowing, anxiety among farmers and escalating water prices). If that is the best that Kern County farmers have to look forward to, there is reason for concern, and such was the theme for much of the day. What Dr. Escriva-Bou intended was that SGMA should result ultimately in certainty and sustainability in groundwater supplies.

Regardless of the future of groundwater, the severity of the current drought was highlighted by several speakers. Ernest Conant, long time water attorney in Kern County and now Regional Director of the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento, indicated that the current drought is unprecedented. Not only is the State in the third year of extreme drought but the precipitation for January through March was the driest on record. There is simply not enough water in the Sacramento Valley to meet basic needs, Conant said. Releases from Shasta Dam are being reduced to 4,500 cfs when the previous record low was 6,800 cfs. Something in excess of 350,000 acres are projected to be fallowed. There will be insufficient Sacramento River water to meet Exchange Contractor obligations, resulting in releases of San Joaquin River to them instead of Friant Contractors – an action once rare but has now occurred in five of the last eight years. As a result, Friant Contractors are facing a 15% allocation. As bad as that is, it’s still better than the 5% SWP allocation. Kevin Donhoff from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California foretold of the extreme measure his Board has been forced to. Certain regions within their service that can only receive water from the State Water Project are being cut to landscape watering one day per week, and perhaps not at all.

While SGMA is presenting significant challenges, encouraging words were provided by Paul Gosselin, DWR’s Deputy Director for Sustainable Groundwater Management. His message was clear: “local control is the cornerstone of how It (SGMA) is going to work”. While DWR had found numerous groundwater plans incomplete, he reiterated that DWR was here to help. They wanted to ensure that plans are on track to achieve sustainability with minimal impacts and are making $350 million available over the next three years to help implement plans.

Of course, SGMA is only one of numerous regulatory measures local farmers are facing. Patrick Pulupa, Executive Officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, spoke of the CVSalts Program and the measures being taken to manage nitrogen and salinity in the Valley. And on a related note, Dr. Lynn Hamilton from Cal Poly, highlighted the increasing regulatory costs farmers are facing noting an increase for nut crops from $100/ac in 2012 to $250/ac in 2018.

Perhaps most disconcerting were the undertones from Joaquin Esquivel, Chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board who considered many rivers to be badly oversubscribed, noting that water rights were a right to divert, not an ownership right and that “the public trust doctrine is important”. As if groundwater supplies were not enough, now surface supplies are being called into question.