published on June 25, 2021 - 11:20 AM
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Farmer Mark Borba of Riverdale says there’s not a legal crop in California that can be profitable with water selling for more than $1,400 an acre-foot.

Borba says most crops can’t be profitable at $400 an acre-foot, but farmers are still planting with the hopes of making it into the black the next year.

What is increasing is the value of land, so as long as their investment grows, they can get loans for the year’s operations in hopes the next year will be profitable.

“There isn’t a grower on the Westside who isn’t spending equity,” Borba said.

At the same time, researchers working on protecting endangered species in the San Joaquin Delta say that all the attention given to preserving water flows out to the Bay has drowned out the real threat to native salmon species, which is predation from non-native species, according to Andrea Fuller, vice president with FishBio, an environmental consulting agency based in Oakdale.

“One of the things that has frustrated me from the fisheries perspective is the sole focus on flows and exports for management and potential solutions for endangered species,” Fuller said. “I really feel that is ignoring the elephant in the room.”

The critical drought Californians find themselves in this year is the second-worst two-year period since records were kept. And while farmers and ecologists each have their own competing needs for water, both hope for better management of the single-most important resource they rely on.


Regional woes

For farmers in the Fresno Irrigation District in eastern Fresno County, water deliveries for July are still undecided, according to a press release. Deliveries have gone through June, but the board of directors are waiting to see what conditions will be like for what is on track to become the fourth-driest year on record for the district.

For Westlands Water District, which relies on allocations from the federally run Central Valley Project, farmers received the announcement confirming there would be a 0% allocation.

Borba said there’s a “wreck” happening in western Fresno County. “There are people out there who have almond trees that are going to die,” he said. “I mean thousands of acres.”

The problem goes beyond almonds. A meeting brought farmers from the Central Coast who said they would pay whatever it takes to get water, agreeing to pay $2,200 an acre-foot for lettuce.

“Farmers have always assumed that if you had your checkbook, you could get your checkbook out and write a big enough check and you could get water. This is the first time that we’ve found out this is not true,” said Borba.


A hot bet

Despite water issues, farmland investments are not slowing down. Matt Pennebaker, broker and appraiser for Advanced Ag Realty & Appraisal in Reedley, said ag transactions are been happening like he’s never seen before.

What has changed is how banks are assessing loans on land with single sources of water. Banks are asking for as much as 50% collateral on loans, whereas for ag land with two sources of water, they’ll ask for 20-25%. Typically, individuals don’t have the money to back up those purchases. Larger organizations such as pension funds and insurance companies are the only ones who can back up demand for those levels of collateral.

With Westlands Water District paying off the balance of obligation for the Central Valley Project, the removal of the 960-acre limit on water allocations means those purchases for large capital investments are more feasible.

With more capital required to cover operating costs, farmers have to turn to financing to survive year-to-year.


Efficiency limits

Flood irrigation in Western Fresno County is a thing of the past, said Borba. On his 9,000 acres, he runs more than 11,000 miles of drip irrigation tape.

Over the years, technology has allowed for reductions in water demand. Tomatoes once took over three acre-feet of water — it’s now been reduced to 26 inches. Garlic used to need over four feet of water per acre, now they need 29 inches. Almonds once drank up nearly six feet of water, that’s been reduced to four.

But at the price for water now, it’s not sustainable for anyone, said Borba.

Decisions on allocations are governed by water users with pre-1914 water rights, availability in reservoirs and the need to address salinity issues from ocean water intrusion in the Delta.

Unimpaired flows in the Bay-Delta watershed average about 28.5 million acre-feet of water, according to the California State Water Resource Control Board. After calculating diversions and water exports, that number is realistically closer to 15.5 million acre-feet. Average regulatory minimums require about five million acre-feet.


Loosening the ESA

Currently, the critically dry year has led to the decision to forego requirements set by the Endangered Species Act, according to Diane Riddle, assistant deputy director for the division of water rights for the State Water Resources Control Board. Flows have been reduced to a minimum of 3,000 cubic feet per second — a level only able to keep out salt-water intrusion because of the installation of a rock barrier. Normal levels dictate minimum water outflows to be 7,100 cubic feet per second between February and June.

Higher flows keep waters cool and salinity down. A lot of the decisions about water flows surround Endangered Species Act protections, especially for salmon.

But the biggest issue for salmon, Fuller estimates, is predation.

Fuller said outside of maintaining cold-water storage in Shasta Lake, what the state does with flows or temperature doesn’t matter given the amount of predation in waterways from non-native species such as bass.

Even under high flows and cool water conditions, Fuller said 50% of salmon in the Stanislaus River could be lost to predation.

In a 2012 study of the Tuolumne River, only 4% of the salmon migrating out of the river survived, which coincides with estimations of the number of predators in the river.

What’s not known is the effect of high flows on bass species. They also don’t know the abundance of predators and what they’re eating. Most of the studies done on predation are funded by irrigation districts, said Fuller. A paper came out in 2013 identifying the key needs for salmon survival and one of them was identifying predator levels.

“It gets a little frustrating to me when a lot of times water users are painted as causing all these problems and not wanting to be part of the solution,” said Fuller. “And here we have irrigation districts that are funding research to do what a peer panel told the state that they needed to be doing.”


Balance sought

Fuller said a balance can be found between the needs of endangered fish and farmers, but “the State Board does not seem to be giving a fair shake to the science at hand,” Fuller said.

She said that the most recent Substitute Environmental Document, approved and used by the State Water Board was full of “omissions and misinterpretations.” An environmental study concluded that 40% unimpaired flows to the San Joaquin River would increase conditions suitable for steelhead salmon. But it doesn’t address threats from predation.

“There’s been many, many studies that have been done looking at trying to link salmon survival to flow through the South Delta and San Joaquin, trying to link salmon survival to exports and there’s no link,” said Fuller. “Even worse, the survival rate has declined substantially.”

Some possible solutions also aren’t being explored such as early year flows. Fuller cited a study suggesting that spring water transfers coinciding with migration periods could benefit salmon while at the same time allowing Delta flows to farmers.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of an interest to do that even in an experimental fashion,” Fuller said.


Reevaluating solutions

Both Borba and Fuller say that solutions exist but that they would require a reevaluation of both the science behind decisions and of existing legislation.

Water allocations from the Central Valley Project are still bound to water needs dictated by state law, said Borba. Borba said that water from the New Melones reservoir could go to supply South-of-Delta water users from the CVP, but that would require a rewrite of state law as water from that reservoir is dedicated to maintain water quality in the Delta.

Fuller said the real solution for salmon comes with an in-depth look at each tributary. Salmon can tell when water temperatures are warming and often begin their migratory patterns earlier, Fuller said. But that can conflict with voluntary settlement agreements for water rights dating back before 1914.

“We all have a responsibility to manage the water resource of the state of California,” said Borba. “We’re not talking about the water resource of Los Angeles or the water resource of the farmers on the Westside or the fish in the delta, we’re talking about managing the water resource of the state.”

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