Lois Henry

Tuesday, Jan 28 2014 10:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: While D.C. plays politics, real water issues await

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

There are real issues to be discussed involving California's water troubles. Tough issues.

Such as, whether we've overplanted with crops that simply cannot be accommodated long term given regulatory changes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

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Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Oh yeah, I went there. Let the howling begin.

Can our water system sustain the explosion in almonds, pistachios, grapes and other permanent crops we've seen in Kern and other valley counties?

I don't know.

But I do know that's a question being mulled, even among those in the water community.

And I know that congressmen stamping their feet demanding that the delta pumps run regardless of environmental issues, and that the San Joaquin River Restoration Act be tossed out the door, are playing politics with a very serious subject.

As far as that, I'm talking about the emergency legislation ginned up last week by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield; Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford; and the ever-ready water warrior, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare.

They failed in a last-minute attempt to attach it to the farm bill and then tried to blame California's senators (i.e., Dianne Feinstein).

Similar bills have already been rejected by the Senate, repeatedly.

So this emergency legislation by Nunes, et al., makes no sense other than to try and boost Valadao in his upcoming re-election bid against Amanda Renteria, a former aide to Feinstein.

Oh, brother. That's some pretty ham-fisted politics if you ask me.

Meanwhile, serious people are facing some hard decisions, which have been brought quickly to the forefront as our drought drags on.

Drought or no drought, I have to wonder if we've been looking at delta water through pomegranate-colored glasses, so to speak.

I've had this conversation with several local agricultural water district folks and have been surprised by their answers.

"I don't argue that we've over-planted. We've extended ourselves on surface water," Eric Averett, general manager for the Rosedale Rio-Bravo Water Storage District, told me recently as we discussed groundwater management.

He even noted that some districts, such as Semitropic Water Storage District, have already implemented a program to buy and retire land.

"But we didn't do it in a vacuum," Averett said of how farmland was developed here. "We haven't been completely irresponsible. We've done it based on (water reliability) reports from DWR (the California Department of Water Resources)."

And, he reminded me, so have cities. Some grew wildly in the pre-recession years.

That may be true, but I was pretty shocked when I looked over the Kern County crop reports at how much acreage has been converted to, or newly developed for, permanent crops in recent years.

Especially since it happened during our last drought and in the face of regulations that restricted more and more water coming out of the delta.

We now have more than 415,000 acres planted in permanent crops.

Permanent crops increased by nearly 68,000 acres between 2008 and 2012, according to the most recent crop report available. Most of that increase came between 2010 and 2012.

That's right about the same time farmers and ag water districts were screaming about the infamous delta smelt and salmon biological opinions that severely curtailed water exports.

Planting more almonds and pistachios was either extremely short-sighted or a gamble farmers were willing to take considering the high prices and extended markets overseas.

At any rate, I think it's important to remember that the State Water Project, which brings water down through the California Aqueduct tucked into Kern's west side farmland, wasn't actually intended as "new" water for substantially increased farming.

It was mainly intended for drinking water to southland cities and to relieve pressure on Central Valley groundwater basins, which were already overdrafted in the 1950s and 1960s.

Averett agreed that was all true.

But, again, he said, farmers haven't been cowboys, planting willy-nilly.

As far as court decisions go, Averett reminded me that the first such fish decision restricting water came out in 2004. Based on that, water districts began ramping up water banking, and growers adjusted to more high-value, permanent crops. Trees and vines are somewhat less thirsty than, say, alfalfa, but they need water all year long.

"Then, all of a sudden, they cut us back," he said of water supplies. "Whether it's trees or houses, we all operated on planning documents we thought were reliable."

Like I said, these are tough issues that require serious attention.

Not political games.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com.

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