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Ag Groups Want Water Allocation Change

Friday, September 18, 2009

Capital Press Agricultural Weekly, Chip Power
Published April 2, 2006

A handful of the Central Valley’s influential agricultural interests pleaded with a congressional panel to roll back portions of a 14-year-old federal law that elevated environmental uses of water to the same priority as crops.

The law in question, known as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, was amended in 1992 to give environmental uses of water more emphasis.

That took 800,000 acre-feet of water annually out of agriculture use.

The end result of the act has been land fallowing, over-reliance on groundwater to augment supplies and a perpetual uncertainty about what a Bureau of Reclamation allocation for any crop year may be, the farm members said.

“No one could reasonably dispute that the (act) has achieved significant benefits for fish and wildlife,” said Thomas Birmingham, general manager and general counsel for Westlands Water District, the largest such district in the United States.

“Rather than achieving a reasonable balance among competing uses of Central Valley Project water, (the act) has created an absolute priority for environmental uses of water,” he said.

Birmingham made his comments last week before the Subcommittee on Water and Power to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources.

Last January, the Interior Department said it would examine the scope of restoration actions and determine whether some were complete and it agreed to look at other consequences of the act.

Daniel Errotabere, a partner in Errotabere Ranches, complained that the act had created a “disaster” for farmers, not the least of which was “mining groundwater,” a practice not sustainable.

“The act has been implemented in a manner that gives environmental uses of water priority over other uses,” said Errotabere, whose family grows cotton, wheat, cannery tomatoes, almonds and other crops on Fresno County’s west side.

Committee chairman, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said that agriculture provided at least 20 percent of the jobs in the region, a cornerstone of the state’s $30 billion farm economy.

In the last 13 years, the law has collected and spent $800 million on environmental restoration efforts in the state, said Radanovich, much of it paid by communities and farmers, along with taxpayers.

“We’re elected to ask the tough questions about whether our laws are working,” Radanovich said.

Not giving testimony at the hearing were representatives of the Environmental Working Group, the Sierra Club and other groups who have long complained that farmers are not charged the actual cost of delivering the water.

David Widell, director of conservation policy for the Western regional office of Ducks Unlimited, acknowledged that the “agricultural community has raised legitimate questions related to what environmental benefits have been derived since the act’s passage.

But benefits are unmistakable, he said.

“Vast increases in restored wetland acreage, seasonally flooded spring and summer habitat, bird use numbers on… wetlands and increases in non-waterfowl wetland-dependent species are but a few examples of what the act has accomplished,” he said.

The Central Valley Project consists of 20 dams and reservoirs, 11 hydro-electric power plants and about 500 miles of canals and other distribution systems. Water from the project is used by 290 agricultural, municipal and industrial contractors.

The amendment to the water act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, changed the purpose and management of the act, Radanovich said. Elevated to equal footing was environmental preservation and protection, he said.

He issued a separate briefing paper at last week’s hearing which observed: “Other major and controversial provisions include contracting reform, revised water pricing, water entitlement for fish and wildlife, and establishment of a water and power user-financed restoration fund.”

As the law stands today, some 800,000 acre-feet are reserved for fish, wildlife and habitat restoration, said Kirk Rodgers, a regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Some improvements are easy to measure; others are not, he said. On balance, he described environmental benefits as “noteworthy.”