A new report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) seeks to “dispel a common myth” by declaring there will be no end to agriculture—“as some have envisioned.” The researchers conclude the industry and communities will continue to thrive, despite a rapidly shrinking footprint from water restrictions.

“California’s farmers have shown an extraordinary capacity for adaptation to changes in prices, technology and the regulatory environment,” they note.

Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia applauded PPIC's call for additional surface and groundwater storage and improving conveyance infrastructure and was encouraged to see attention paid to applying floodwater to recharge groundwater basins in the report. However, Puglia was troubled that, despite PPIC's research, environmental groups and their legislative allies continue to block infrastructure improvements and push for accelerating the state's timeline for groundwater sustainability.

"At the same time, they often decry the impact of water shortages on rural communities," said Puglia in an email to Agri-Pulse. "Choking off water supplies—both groundwater and surface water—is a sure way to economically and sociologically injure those same rural communities."

Accompanying the report, the annual conference for the PPIC Water Policy Center set the stage for water management leaders to flesh out strategies for ensuring the industry will survive the many challenges ahead. PPIC Senior Fellow Jeffrey Mount found hopeful signs in California learning to live with less water—after “we broke our water supply system in the Central Valley” and will do the same for the Colorado River system.

“It's too bad we have to break things in order to fix it,” he lamented.

Mount claimed the 2012–16 drought broke California’s groundwater supplies with dramatic aquifer declines, accompanied by widespread subsidence and many dry wells. Last year “broke” the system for Central Valley surface water, with record low water project allocations. And conditions are quickly deteriorating for Colorado River supplies, as federal agencies press for more action.

The current drought has led to devastating economic impacts for agriculture, according to a UC Merced study released last week. The industry suffered a $1.2 billion loss in crop value this year, following an $810 million drop in 2021. Food processing lost $845 million in 2022, leading the two industries to endure a combined $2 billion in value-added losses—costing nearly 20,000 jobs.

And farmers stand to bear further water shortages next year.

On Monday the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned Central Valley Project (CVP) contractors to plan for a fourth dry year and “extremely limited water supply conditions.” The agency is calling for conservation actions more severe than any already in place. Many farmers dependent on the CVP for supplies received no allocations this year. Sacramento River Settlement Contractors had just 14% of their water allocation, far below the 75% previously guaranteed in dry years.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) will make an announcement on Friday for State Water Project deliveries, according to staff. Last year the department set the initial allocations at zero for the first time in history.

Jeffrey MountJeffrey Mount, PPIC senior fellow

At the junction of two droughts—for California and the broader West—Los Angeles and other Southern California cities rely heavily on imported water. Representing them, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California plans to issue an emergency declaration for its service area in December if conditions continue to worsen, according to Bill Hasencamp, who manages Colorado River resources for the district and spoke at the PPIC conference. The declaration would set the groundwork for a potential mandatory conservation order for 19 million people if the district does not see any gains in the Northern California snowpack this winter.

“California has already been through this dance once before,” said Hasencamp, in explaining how the urban district permanently cut its use by 20% starting two decades ago. “We're going to have to do that on a monumental scale over the entire basin over the next year.”

In 2003 Metropolitan, along with the San Diego County Water Authority and the state of California, partnered with agricultural entities in the Imperial Valley to reduce use while keeping farms productive. Yet Hasencamp cautioned that the current drought planning is going to be much more contentious and placed it on the same level of importance as the Colorado River Compact, which set the course for the river for the last century.

Adding to the challenges, the northern end of the state—particularly Sacramento Valley rice farmers—suffered unprecedented losses this year from the drought. Thaddeus Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, stressed that agriculture’s chance to once again thrive in the region is intimately tied to the health of the environment. The district is trying to meet the competing needs and values through an ecosystem-wide approach, investing in restoration projects “up and down” the Sacramento River.

In September the Newsom administration authorized more than $100 million of state funding for restoration projects supporting voluntary agreements for Bay-Delta freshwater flows. Yet the looming threat of an economic recession is worrying conservation groups.

“It has us panicked,” said Sandi Matsumoto, a program director for The Nature Conservancy, in response to a recent report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office forecasting a potential $25 billion deficit. “That puts a ton of uncertainty in play that's going to slow down what we're doing for drought response.”

The evolving drought has escalated pressure on state and federal water agencies to rapidly update their weather forecasting models as well as reservoir operations and water rights data to enable reservoirs and groundwater recharge projects to capture more runoff from atmospheric rivers.

“We are at a generational moment where all this increased data—all this information and decision making amongst us—is really critical,” said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “We are going to have to be making a lot of decisions here in the next years really quickly.”

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Esquivel acknowledged reports of Siskiyou County ranchers intentionally violating curtailment orders. He sought to add context by highlighting the amount of “incredible compliance” coming from water right holders throughout the state after two years of curtailments.

“Water right holders,” said Esquivel, “are wanting to be better decision makers, are wanting to use their rights in ways that help support the resilience of us all.”

DWR Director Karla Nemeth, on the other hand, is bracing for difficult conversations to come over water rights in California. In previous drought years the department would reach out to settlement contractors along the Feather River in the Sacramento Valley to strike an informal compromise on conservation for the year.

“At some point, that degree of uncertainty doesn't work for anybody,” said Nemeth, adding that DWR is working with settlement contractors in “challenging ourselves to think about what that senior [water right] position looks like in the context of climate change, longer-duration droughts and bigger, more intense events.”

The catalyst for that conversation will be the annual report on the State Water Project’s delivery capability, which will model drought and climate impacts to water storage.

“We can't put our head in the sand, because it's happening around us now,” said Nemeth. “We'll be faced with immediate circumstances if this year is dry.”

DWR has cut Feather River contractors by 50% in the last two years. Their settlement contract, however, stipulates that the state cannot reduce their allocations at all for the next five years as a result, according to Nemeth.

“It's a pretty stark example,” she said, “that's not up to the challenge of longer, deeper droughts.”

Mike Connor, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Army’s Civil Works Program and a former Reclamation commissioner, extended Nemeth’s argument to San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority.

“Everybody's at risk with respect to the extreme nature of the drought,” said Connor. “Let's face it, whether it's the Colorado River or the Central Valley, we're making agreements that circumvent the priority system.”

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