Calif. Gov. Brown Eases Farm Water Restrictions

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order Monday aimed at easing water restrictions for farmers, following two dry winters in a row.
     The order directs the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and Department of Water Resources (DWR) to expedite the review and processing of both transfers and existing water rights claims for the 2013 growing season. Brown hopes to alleviate the impact of dwindling water reserves on San Joaquin Valley farmers.
     “Agriculture is vital to the health of California’s economy, and this order ensures we’re doing what’s necessary to cope with a very dry year,” Gov. Brown said in a statement.
     SWRCB and DWR share water transfer responsibilities in the Golden State. The former handles reviews and processes requests for water transfers from famers, while the DWR is tasked with actually delivering the water to customers. Water transfers in dry years help districts with excess supply sell to those with less, typically districts in the western and southern sides of the massive Central Valley.
     DWR’s final snow survey of the season on May 2 found the Sierra snowpack at just 17 percent of normal. While the California’s rainy season began well, few storms in January through March – typically the wettest months – coupled with a warm spring spells catastrophe for the state’s water supply, which relies on snowmelt runoff to refill reservoirs.
     Additionally, federal orders to protect the Delta smelt prevent pumping from the freshwater San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to replenish the San Luis Reservoir, the keystone of the 700-mile California Aqueduct system.
     California’s representatives in Washington praised Gov. Brown’s action.
     “I am grateful that Gov. Brown is taking this early, important action to protect California’s agricultural industry,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said. “This executive order provides economic benefits across many regions of California. Willing sellers of water will benefit, as will those in the areas of greatest need, while retaining protections for fish, wildlife, and other environmental values.”
     Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), whose district includes agricultural installations hardest hit by water shortages, agreed – but cautioned that protecting the Delta smelt spells perennial disaster for farmers across the state.
     “With our current water crisis, Gov. Brown recognized the need for immediate action and took it,” Rep. Costa said. “His move to ease water transfers will reduce the pain facing farmers, farm workers, and our farming communities. This is a good step, but it does not solve our real problem: restrictions on pumping in the Delta.”
     Costa continued: “These regulations cost us precious water yet again this winter and may prevent critical transfers throughout the summer. The only way to end this cycle of uncertainty is to move forward with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that will bring more water reliability for all Californians.”
     Gov. Brown made the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, the centerpiece of his political agenda last year when he announced a $25 billion plan to divert part of the Sacramento River into a pair of massive 35-mile long tunnels underneath the Delta. The tunnels would then route the water south to the California Aqueduct – and eventually to Southern California’s 24 million thirsty residents.
     But the plan has drawn harsh criticism from both federal agencies and environmental watchdog groups for years, and California’s seemingly perpetual budget shortfalls make the project even less certain. And in California’s desert climate – where water is the new Gold Rush – farmers north of LA County dislike any plan that sends water south when it could be used to water their fields.
     However, farmers had tentative praise for Monday’s executive order, and thanked Gov. Brown for the preemptive action.
     “It takes water to sustain the farms that feed our growing population,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. “In a year like this, voluntary transfers of water from areas that have a surplus give our system more flexibility so that farmers facing water supply cutbacks – especially those with permanent crops – may find alternative sources. We thank the governor for moving quickly to streamline California water transfer rules.”
     Westlands Water District manager Tom Birmingham agreed.
     “The supply of water available for farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is lower this year than in 1977, the driest year on record in California, and Valley communities like Mendota, Firebaugh, and San Joaquin are facing an economic disaster,” Birmingham said. “The transfers facilitated by this executive order will provide critically needed water to sustain farmers, the people they employ, and the communities that depend on irrigated agriculture.”
     According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Golden State accounts for 15 percent of all U.S. crop receipts, raking in $43.5 billion in 2011. California produces nearly half of all fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the nation, the agency said.

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