Grassroots Group Fights for Common Sense Water Policies

The Great Valley of California, variously referred to as the Central Valley, or, north of the Delta as the Sacramento Valley, and south of the Delta as the San Joaquin Valley, is one of the geographical wonders of the world. Nearly 450 miles in length and around 50 miles wide, it stretches from Redding in the far north to Bakersfield in the south.

Many Californians take the Central Valley for granted, if they think about it at all, but that unconcern is unwarranted. It is a unique combination of great weather, fertile soil, an annually replenished snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range to its immediate east, and – thanks to visionary builders in the 1950s and 1960s – it is blessed with the most extensive, ingenious system of water engineering in the world.

Thanks mostly to the Central Valley, California’s farmers produce “a sizable majority of American fruits, vegetables and nuts; 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots and the list goes on and on.” All of that is endangered today, because California’s policymakers are not taking the appropriate steps to cope with recent droughts.

The history of California, based on accounts dating back to the earliest settlements, and before that, based on physical data such as tree rings, is characterized by periods of intense droughts. Regardless of whether or not we are experiencing unusual climate change in this era, droughts lasting years, or even decades, have always been part of life in California.

The response to California’s four year drought (that wasn’t broken until the very wet winter of 2016-17) consisted almost exclusively of water rationing. Allocations to farmers were slashed, and urban residents were compelled to reduce their consumption by at least 25 percent. Meanwhile, projects to increase the supply of water, or maintain the existing system of aqueducts and reservoirs, were minimized.

This is evident in the water bonds passed by Californians during and since the drought years. Voters approved Prop. 1 in November 2014 and Prop. 68 in June 2018, for a total of $11.1 billion in spending on water. But of that, only $1.9 billion was allocated to reservoir storage, and only $3.5 billion for other water infrastructure.

In November 2018 voters rejected an $8.9 billion water bond, Prop. 3, that would have allocated $2.7 billion towards water infrastructure and $0.6 billion to reservoir storage, along with $1.6 billion to “other supply/storage” (primarily sewage reuse and aquifer storage). The bill, receiving 49.4 percent yes votes, was narrowly defeated, mostly because the Sierra Club opposed its use of funds to repair the Friant-Kern Canal.

This bears reflection. A compromise water bond package that allocated $3.9 billion to habitat restoration, nearly half of the entire proposed funding, was nonetheless rejected by the most powerful environmentalist organization in California. This cornucopia of hydro-pork, a bill that would have funded Salton Sea restoration, and would have turned the Los Angeles River back from a flood culvert into a scenic urban river, a bill that literally had something for everyone, was not good enough for the Sierra Club.

But water scarcity in California is not inevitable, and water rationing is not the only answer. Through investment in additional above and below ground storage to capture storm runoff even in dry years, along with investment in wastewater recycling and desalination, it is possible to guarantee Californians a perennial supply of abundant, affordable water, while still retaining more than enough to maintain the health of California’s ecosystems.

The Grassroots Resistance to Water Rationing

While urban residents contend with short showers and needlessly dying shrubbery, California’s farmers face an existential threat to their lives and livelihoods.

Beginning in January 2020, pursuant to the California legislature’s recently passed “Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” Central Valley farmers are required to reduce the amount of well water they use to irrigate their crops. Then in March 2020, California regulators set new rules that further reduce how much river water farmers can take.

Obviously it makes no sense to drain aquifers dry, or divert the entire flow of a river for irrigation, but these two regulations hitting farmers at the same time is a perfect storm. Suddenly farms that have operated for generations face the possibility of having to shut down operations. And in to pick up the pieces, flush with subsidies, are renewables “entrepreneurs” who aim to carpet the southern San Joaquin Valley with solar farms.

In response to this potentially fatal squeeze on Central Valley farm families that have helped feed the world for generations, one woman, Kristi Diener is fighting back. Diener and her husband are partners in a 3rd generation family farm that grows garlic, onions, tomatoes, almonds, cotton, hay, wheat, grapes, safflower; a little of everything depending on water allocation and crop rotation.

If the Central Valley is ground zero for farm production in America, and it is, then Five Points, where the Dieners farm, is the epicenter. This rural crossroads, located about 20 miles southwest of Fresno, is in the heart of the 879,000 acre Federal Central Valley Project. If adequate supplies of water aren’t restored, i.e., if the Sierra Club and its Silicon Valley benefactors have their way, farms will disappear from these vast expanses of bountiful land. Instead, the acreages will be carpeted with solar panels, producing electrons instead of food.

In 2015, the third back-to-back dry year in a drought stricken state, after watching 27,000 acre feet of water get released into California’s Stanislaus River to save 23 (twenty three) steelhead trout, Diener decided to start a movement.

Five years later, with no money, Kristi Diener’s “California Water for Food and People Movement” has 14,200 members on a Facebook group where they share information and ideas dedicated to restoring common sense and humanity to California’s water policies. Based in California’s Central Valley and agricultural heartland, this group includes thousands of farmers, along with families in farm communities on the front lines in the fight against the green tyrants. They are very well informed. But they haven’t been able to stop the ongoing attacks on their lives and livelihoods. Consider this recent post on their Facebook page:

During November [2020], knowing we could be heading into a multi year drought, northern reservoir managers continued to release water through the Delta, and into the Pacific Ocean anyway. Environmental regulations say the flows are necessary to produce a rebound of endangered Delta smelt and Chinook salmon, yet zero of either species have been collected in all of the latest trawling surveys, where they spend several days a month searching in more than 200 spots. This practice of releasing water and hoping fish improve, has been unsuccessful for nearly 30 years. Both species are close to extinction.

Even with little to no rain to speak of in November, an amount of freshwater equal to a year’s supply for 3,031,560 people for a year, was emptied from storage and added to the supposedly rising sea level. It is equal to 987,836,857,560 gallons (987.8 billion) or 303,156 acre feet. Last week State Water Project contractors, who provide water for 27 million people and 750,000 acres of the most productive farmland on Earth, were given their initial allocation of 10%. Put another way, 303,156 acre feet was sent to the ocean for failing fish-saving policies in one month with little rain, while contractors received 422,848 acre-feet to share among 27 million people and 750,000 acres of food production.

Diener was reached earlier this week for an interview. Her observations and insights reveal a person who is not only living with the consequences of California’s choice to neglect water infrastructure and instead ration water, but also someone very well informed. Here are her remarks:

When did you form the California Water for Food and People Movement?

We founded the movement in April 2015 and it was about three weeks after Brown imposed the 25 percent restrictions statewide. People were skipping showers and not washing their cars. People were actually saving their shower water. Some people were turning in their neighbors. We were living water-poor lives, and then the California branch of the Bureau of Reclamation under Obama announced that 27,000 acre feet were going to be released from New Melones reservoir to help 23 steelhead trout make it to the ocean. This was the last straw.

What is the goal of your organization?

California’s water policy and regulations and projects, federal and state, the endangered species act, it is all so complex and overlapping it is like a foreign language. Our goal is to take the information and present it in a way that people can identify with so they can see how these issues relate to and affect them personally. For decades farmers have been unjustly portrayed as an industry that grabs more than their share of water for profit. Farmers are multigenerational and they just want to farm. They do a poor job of defending themselves because that’s not their forte. We want to give agriculture an additional voice, to show how water is distributed, what it costs and how it’s used, to present all the parts that are routinely omitted in most water articles. We want to try to correct the myths that are routinely circulated; that water is wasted, that water is subsidized. We need to have people understanding the complexities of California’s water system before policies and proposals are put out there for voters to make a decision about.

How do you go about reaching people and making a difference?

We try to be proactive when opportunities present themselves to submit public comments on proposed public actions. We try to take action as a group and be heard whenever possible. We coordinate almost everything through Facebook, where we are able to do a lot of collaborating through posts and messages. Because many candidates run for state and local positions without understanding the complexity of California’s water laws and regulations, we have built a reputation as a group people can come to for the facts and the truth about water. We help candidates formulate water platforms for their campaigns. We offer whatever knowledge we have so if someone gets elected they will carry that knowledge to office.

How would you characterize the role of environmental organizations in California?

It depends on the organization. We all want clean air and water. We all want pristine streams, rivers, lakes. Very few among us are not environmentalists. But when you get to the radical environmentalists you get groups that are political activists. They often destroy the environment to get an outcome that’s favorable to their agenda. The Sierra Club routinely leverages the environment as a tool to achieve an agenda; they are anti-capitalism, pro big government, pro dependence on government, they are about power and control. You can see that with so many nonprofits. The NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council] has more than 500 environmental attorneys. They brag about the number of lawsuits they have ongoing at any time. They are notorious for the sue and settle cases. The Friends of the River is now involved in a lawsuit against raising Lake Shasta Dam. Political activists that start in these radical groups later gain positions of power in government.

What are some examples of harm environmental organizations have done to the environment?

We just lived through four million acres being destroyed by wildfires and they burn hotter and longer because of the lack of thinning. There are almost no controlled burns or logging anymore. These environmental organizations have been on the front lines of lawsuits that keep people out of the forests, and now all those species are gone. These fires are just the beginning of the damage when you have poor forest management. We’ve had smoke filled air and destroyed habitat, and we’re lucky there hasn’t been a lot of rain because at least there’s a chance to get in there and mitigate some of the damage. We have fire encrusted ashy ground that cannot absorb rainwater sending sediment and toxins directly into the streams and rivers and reservoirs.

Any other examples of how extreme environmentalism has been harmful?

Another example comes in the form of the Biological Opinions. The Biological Opinions (among other things) regulate how much water is captured into storage through pumping at the south end of the Delta after all of the upstream water rights, needs, and in-Delta consumption usages have been met. If water that has flowed through the Delta is not pumped into storage and saved before it meets the ocean (and I’m not talking about water needed for outflow to prevent saltwater intrusion), the 27 million people south of the Delta who rely on it to meet their supply needs have little to no water.

For the epicenter of our nation’s food supply in the Central Valley, and for the domestic purposes of the lower 2/3 of the state, the Biological Opinions that govern pumping are crucial. The first Bio Ops were written in 2008 for smelt, and 2009 for salmon, but based mostly on science conducted in 2004. These “Opinions” are just that: opinions. “It is our opinion that if you operate the pumps like this, it will spur a rebound of endangered Smelt and Chinook Salmon.” These first Opinions were a massive failure. These fish are now nearly extinct, and they have been devastating to farmers and families too. The Trump administration expedited updating the federal Opinions in 2018, completed them using the best scientific minds and data, and signed the Record of Decision for their implementation in February 2020. But Governor Newsom’s administration along with the radical environmentalists sued to stop them less than 24 hours later.

That action really makes one ask, what are they really trying to do? You have these Opinions intended to produce a rebound of fish, and subsequently take massive amounts of water away from people and food producers, but the Opinions fail to meet their goal. New Opinions are signed that use the latest and best scientific data for a real shot at saving these fish, and return some of that water back to humans. But they sue to keep the old Opinions in place? Were the original Opinions really about recovering fish or controlling water?

The damage from operating the pumps according to the 2008 and 2009 Biological Opinions has been devastating. Not only are these endangered fish not being protected, but we have land subsidence, aquifer collapse, lack of groundwater recharge, degradation of drinking water quality, blowing dust, an increase in cases of Valley Fever, and thousands of fewer acres of farmland in production (which absorb CO2 and recharge groundwater through irrigation). Economically, water rates are rising (use less pay more), farm jobs have been lost, water conveyance infrastructure is being damaged such as canals that are sinking, and the California Aqueduct is buckling.

What sort of message do you think would resonate with Californians in order to change the policies that are harming your community?

Right now, water is being squandered. We used to sail through droughts lasting five, six, and seven years without noticing a thing. Our water security is now being compromised for environmental causes. Many of these policies are taking the water under the guise of producing a rebound of endangered delta smelt and chinook salmon, yet neither population has improved, nor has any fish species been delisted after nearly 30 years. We need to manage outflows, and demand accountability from the environmental experiments for the water taken out of the human supply. We need the ability to store more water in wet years. And for heaven’s sake, we need to support our farmers who feed us three times a day with food that is safe, fresh, and affordable.

How will the California Water for Food and People Movement Make a Difference?

We want Californians to know that there is plenty of water for everybody. We have always had biblical rains alternating with back to back dry periods.  That is normal and that is why we constructed the most magnificent system of water capture, conveyance and delivery in the world. How we manage that system dictates how we meet user needs.

We can’t wait until legislation or ballot measures or water related bonds hit to empower the public with the information they need to make good decisions. If we try to educate the public with the complex back story at that time, we’re too late.

This article and interview originally appeared in the California Globe.

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