CIRS Blog about Rural California

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WASHINGTON - A top Interior Department official  Tuesday will sign a San Joaquin Valley irrigation settlement with the Westlands Water District, signaling the end of a long-running legal battle, but marking the start of a hot new political fight.

After years of wrangling, negotiators agreed to a deal that absolves the federal government of the responsibility to provide irrigation drainage to farms in thte Westlands district. The government’s failure to provide the drainage as part of building the Central Valley Project led to tainted soil and serious environmental problems.

In return, according to lawmakers briefed on the deal Friday, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. The nation’s largest water district will also receive a potentially an advantageous new type of contract and have its own remaining debt to the government forgiven, among other changes.

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The Yankees are a wonderful people - wonderful! Wherever they go, they make improvements. If they were to emigrate in large numbers to hell itself, they would irrigate it, plant trees and flower gardens, build reservoirs and fountains, and make everything beautiful and pleasant, so that by the time we get there, we can sit down at a marble-topped table and eat ice cream.  

—General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, 1863

 

Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.

—William Ruckelshaus, first EPA Administrator, 1990

 

California’s drought is in its fourth year, with no end in sight and the dry season upon us. The situation is dire: water supply is dwindling in reservoirs and aquifers, and the snowpack is at the lowest level on record. More than 10 percent of the state’s irrigated lands have been fallowed since early 2014 due to reduced water deliveries from state and federal programs. The Colorado River Basin is in the midst of a severe drought as well, adding another layer of instability for southern California contractors that are reliant on water from the state’s allotment. The western United States has experienced a combined water loss of at least 62 trillion gallons during the current drought, causing a measurable uplift in the land surface of the entire region, with the greatest effects (up to a .5 inch rise) occurring in California’s mountain ranges. Simply put: when we use too much water for too long, valleys subside and mountains rise.

 

Mandatory water conservation measures to cut urban water use by 25 percent are now in effect, with the State Water Board and Governor Brown warning that more restrictions will come, potentially even affecting previously untouched senior water rights holders.  In addition to building awareness and ramping up enforcement of the “low-hanging fruit” of water conservation—lawn watering, car washing, etc.—the state also announced $1 billion in drought relief funding. Reality is increasingly setting in: Californians must conserve water, and we must do it now.

 

State lawmakers have already taken critical steps toward improved water management. Last year, Californians approved a long-debated water bond that will help to fund emergency drought measures as well as increased water storage and future improvements and maintenance to the state’s water systems. The first-ever statewide groundwater protection law became effective in January, but full implementation will take decades. Senator Fran Pavley, who sponsored the groundwater bill, is calling for expedited enforcement of key measures, e.g. access to well log data, that would help water officials to understand and address excessive groundwater withdrawals in drought-stricken basins.

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Introduction

 

Non-point source pollution (NPS) is a global problem affecting the safety of our drinking water supply and aquatic habitats. According to the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, agriculturally derived NPS is the leading cause of water quality degradation in surface waters. Pollutants originating from agricultural runoff include sediment, nutrients (N and P), pesticides, pathogens, salts, trace elements, dissolved organic carbon and substances that contribute to biological oxygen demand (BOD). 

 

For example, discharge of nutrients into aquatic ecosystems has led to the formation of hypoxia/anoxia induced “dead zones” in more than 400 locations worldwide. Thus, new and effective management practices for agriculture must be identified, tested and monitored in order to reduce the impacts of agriculture on the sustainability of water resources.

 

Wetlands are widely advertised as critical components of our planet providing a wide variety of ecosystem services: kidneys of the hydrologic cycle by removing pollutants, biodiversity hot spots, habitats of rare and endangered species, ground water recharge zones, localized areas for flood protection, carbon sinks and aesthetic value.

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WASHINGTON — California water legislation is starting to trickle across Capitol Hill.

 

One newly introduced bill would speed approval of Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. Another would help restore San Francisco Bay habitat. More targeted bills are coming.

 

So are some frustrations.

 

“I feel like that pop song, ‘Call Me Maybe,’ ” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With endocrine-disrupting compounds affecting fish populations in rivers as close as Pennsylvania's Susquehanna and as far away as Israel's Jordan, a new research study shows that soils can filter out and break down at least some of these emerging contaminants. The results suggest that water pollution can be diminished by spraying treated wastewater on land rather than discharging it directly into streams, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

 

Using Penn State's 600-acre "Living Filter" -- a wastewater reuse system less than a mile from the University Park campus -- as a laboratory, researchers tested soil samples for the presence and accumulation of three estrogens. For almost three decades, more than 500 million gallons of treated wastewater from the campus has been sprayed annually from irrigation pipes onto this site, which is composed of cropland, grassland and forest.

 

To understand how endocrine-disrupting compounds behave in the soil, researchers extracted samples and analyzed for two natural estrogens, 17-beta-estradiol and estrone -- hormones naturally produced by humans and animals, such as dairy cattle -- and one synthetic estrogen, 17-alpha-ethynylestradiol -- a compound in birth-control pills.

 

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Soil-profile art is not akin to classic paintings with themes; rather, it resembles abstract art: and if you are used to thinking of soil as dirt, which is customary in our society, you are not keyed to find beauty in it.”  Hans Jenny, 1984

 

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Why soils?

2015 has been designated the International Year of Soils by the United Nations.  This designation has been embraced in the United States by the Department of Agriculture, the Soil Science Society of America and others. Many readers may be asking, “why?” This article will serve as an introduction to the topic and CIRS will post monthly submissions by experts on the particular value of soils. Our approach will focus on the rural but we will not limit our discussion to rural regions. There are many rich and productive soils being used in urban areas to sustain communities by providing space to grow food. And food production is our concern. Soil is the foundation of civilization and has been the key to human development over the past 13,000 years.

 

In this series of posts we will discuss soil formation, ecosystem functions of soil, soil loss, the economic value of soil, soils on pasture land, soils in crop production, soil and water, the politics of soil, soil and food security and carbon sequestration in soils. Expect a diverse and well regarded group of writers and look for them here the last Monday of every month.

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California’s historic drought continues to intensify. The very real impacts across the entire state include idled farmland and associated farmworker job losses, farm income losses, and food price increases. The state’s dwindling reservoir supply has resulted in mandatory water cutbacks and unprecedented fines for some, but no region of California has conserved as much water as Governor Brown has requested (20 percent). Water use actually increased 1 percent in urban areas last May, compared to the May average from 2011-2013. Residents of several cities are still receiving violation notices for failing to keep front lawns green, even though they are saving water. In rural communities, the impacts of drought are far more obvious, particularly in communities reliant on groundwater as a primary source of drinking water.

  

 

San Joaquin Drought

Caption: The San Joaquin River running dry below Fraint Dam in April 2014, image from American Rivers, ©Julie Fair, flight by LightHawk

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The lack of water to grow crops dominated farm-related news in the San Joaquin Valley during the spring and summer of 2014. The federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project announced zero allocations for the water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley that buy water from them, although the SWP raised its allocation to five percent in April 2014. 

California has eight million acres of irrigated land, and 410,000 acres or five percent are expected to be fallowed in 2014 due to lack of water, including 10,000 acres that would normally be planted to vegetable and melon crops. About 40 percent of California's irrigated crop land, some 3.2 million acres, are planted to trees and vines.

A UCD study released in May 2014 estimated that San Joaquin Valley growers would receive a net 1.5 million fewer acre feet of surface water in 2014, which could lead to 6,400 fewer jobs in crop production, three percent of the average 200,000 farm worker jobs in the San Joaquin Valley and 1.5 percent of the state's average farm employment of 400,000. An additional 8,000 related nonfarm jobs could be lost. Some of the farm and nonfarm jobs expected to be lost are seasonal. 

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In the San Joaquin Valley, water is pumped out of aquifers at roughly twice the rate of replenishment through precipitation. Groundwater overdraft is a common phenomenon all over California, where demand for water outweighs supply. This is especially true during drought years, and of paramount concern right now because of California’s multiyear drought. Underground water levels have declined as much as 200 feet in the San Joaquin Valley during the past two years alone.

 

This year, California water experts estimate that over-pumping from groundwater aquifers will make up for over 1.5 trillion gallons of water that will not be delivered through the state’s extensive surface water projects. Compensating with groundwater is a risky and costly enterprise. UC Davis predicts that the increased groundwater use will cost nearly $500 million, with the greatest share of resource and economic impacts occurring in the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin.

 

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Maximum land subsidence in the United States USGSThe signs on this pole in Mendota, CA show the approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977. The rate of subsidence is even faster now.

 

 

Like any natural resource, the surface of the earth is dynamic and ever-changing, and responsive to what happens around and underneath it. Land subsidence is the process by which land surfaces sink downward. Upper layers of the subsoil dry out and compact, reducing the pore sizes or eliminating the spaces between soil particles. This is a permanent, irreversible condition—watering the soil does not and will not cause the land to rebound in altitude. The land literally sinks under its own weight, filling voids where water has been extracted, thus decreasing the total storage capacity of the affected aquifer. As the water table drops, shallow wells can dry up, and the water levels in nearby lakes and streams also drop. Groundwater overdraft can cause seawater intrusion in coastal areas, further degrading the quality of remaining groundwater. The Mojave River Basin recently experienced desiccation cracks, sink holes, and fissures more than three feet wide and deep as a result of groundwater overdraft.

More than 80 percent of the identified subsidence in the United States (affecting over 17,000 sq. miles in 45 states) is a consequence of groundwater depletion by humans. In Merced County, for example, unsustainable groundwater pumping caused an alarming subsidence rate of nearly a foot per year during the past two years—much faster than previously documented.

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Controversy awaits the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) at its July meeting. Due to decreasing water supplies and an extreme drought, the State Board has ordered junior water rights holders in certain watersheds to reduce or cease water diversions. Earlier in June, some senior water rights holders received State Board letters warning of possible curtailments to their water uses as well. So far, these lucky few have maintained their ability to use basically unlimited amounts of water while cities and farmers face mandatory cutbacks, and while several rural communities risk running out of drinking water.  

 

The Associated Press recently found that just 24 of the 3,897 entities with active senior and riparian rights (more than half of which are corporations) reported using more than twice the volume of water that California’s massive state and federal water projects deliver to cities and farms in an average year. To re-state: twenty-four individual senior water rights holders use double the volume of water that is delivered through the state’s vast and extensive system of dams, canals, and aqueducts during an average year. This year, state water projects have reduced deliveries by 95 percent. Senior water rights holders have not been required to conserve water or reduce use by even a gallon.

 

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Marijuana is the top cash crop in California and nationwide. In 2005, the U.S. Deptartment of Agriculture found that the average production value of marijuana—more than $30 billion—far exceeded the value of corn or soybeans. More recent numbers indicate that the value of marijuana exceeds the combined value of corn and soybeans, but these market estimates vary widely.

Wild west of weed post

 

Marijuana is an exceptionally water-loving crop. A pilot study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) found that concentrated marijuana cultivation has the potential to completely dewater streams and other sources of water (e.g. mountain seeps and springs). The most common method for securing water for growing cannabis is siting grow operations in locations with reliable year-round water sources to draw upon. It is no coincidence that the so-called “Emerald Triangle”—the most productive region for cannabis in the country—is located in the part of California that receives the most average rainfall. In regions with less water and/or during recent drought years when precipitation levels dropped, CDFW also documented the groundwater use for grow operations and importing water by truck.

 

These findings are significant, particularly during the third year of California’s historic drought. Despite a statewide law that allows for the legal cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana, illegal grow operations have proliferated especially in the past two decades. Every year, California authorities receive complaints about marijuana on public lands, often involving armed trespassers who divert water from local sources. Many of these operations are secretly set up in protected wilderness areas that provide limited habitat for vulnerable species, like salmonids and fishers. In addition to high-volume water use, chemical fertilizers and rodenticides have impacted local and downstream water resources as well as wildlife.   

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Last week, a prominent environmental group released its annual report identifying the top ten “endangered” streams and rivers nationwide—waterways that are at a crossroads politically, where key upcoming decisions will have major impacts for better or worse. California’s San Joaquin River, the second longest river in the state, is #1 on the list due to the historical and ongoing impacts of state water infrastructure, and major proposals to expand this infrastructure in the future. Flowing 330 miles, the River begins in the Sierra Nevada mountains and meanders through the San Joaquin Valley toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is part of the largest estuary on the west coast. Tributaries to the San Joaquin include the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Calaveras, and Mokelumne Rivers. The 10,000 square mile San Joaquin Valley receives little rainfall on average, but historical river flows have been maintained by seasonal snow melt from the Sierras. This area is the most agriculturally productive region in the country; the San Joaquin Valley supports upwards of $25 billion in food crops annually. The San Joaquin River provides important transportation corridors for agricultural products and since the early 1900s, the river has been routinely dredged to allow large cargo ships to navigate. 

SanJoaquinRiver1

It is well documented that major changes to the Delta and the San Joaquin River have resulted from human activities, especially water diversions and other infrastructure that captures and transports water away from the Delta to drier parts of the state. Some studies estimate less than five percent of the native biodiversity of the Delta remains, with the tidal marsh habitats being most degraded. Chinook salmon and other native fish struggle to maintain healthy population levels as aquatic habitat areas along the San Joaquin (and many other waterways in and near the Delta) have been degraded and blocked by in-stream water diversions and monumental structures like dams.

 Water diversions and stream barriers reduce flows and physically alter the surrounding habitat areas. According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, many of these alterations and changes will be permanent: [t]he characteristics of the earlier Delta that are likely gone forever include (1) physical habitat appropriate for species that tend to rely on shallow water and structure for refuge and feeding; (2) food aggregation that long, complex sloughs and channels provide through increased production and retention, and (3) cooling functions that adjacent wetlands provide for small water bodies, such as sloughs, which provide refuge for fishes during summer heat spells.

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— San Joaquin Valley lobbying priorities this week can be summed up simply.

“Water, water, water,” Brenda Veenendaal, senior regional planner with the Fresno Council of Governments, said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

In separate, but overlapping lobbying trips that formally began Monday, officials from both Fresno and Tulare counties have been seeking support from elected lawmakers, all-important staff and Obama administration higher-ups. These are annual ventures that this year took on a different, wetter cast.

Water projects and drought relief now top the Fresno County COG wish list, which in previous years emphasized roads and rail. In some ways, the state’s well-documented drought emergency has simplified the Valley officials’ sales job, as bipartisan congressional action actually seems possible.

“It seems like they are starting to come out of their bunkers,” said Amarpreet Dhaliwal, mayor of the city of San Joaquin and chair of the Fresno COG Policy Board. “There seems to be some thawing, a little bit of movement.”

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Impact of California’s drought on farmworkers

The effects of this year’s drought in California are being discussed in both statewide and national media. California produces vegetables, fruits, nuts and dairy products for most of the country and for international export. Debate rages about what foods use the most water, what products will be most affected and how consumer food bills will increase. One of the groups of people most seriously impacted by the reduction in planting but least discussed is the farmworker population.

Farm laborers are already one of the most vulnerable sectors of the population and the drought this year will put them even more at risk. The average annual income for a farmworker is $13,800. This places many farmworkers at risk for hunger, poor housing and subsequent health impacts. In some rural California communities that rely almost exclusively on agriculture for work, unemployment rates are already high, even at peak season.

Drought Map 

 

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 This is the final of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. The first explained California’s surface water infrastructureThe second focused on ground water management. The third brief addressed water quality and this brief will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of the fourth brief: CAWaterProposalsbrief.pdf                                                                                                                                                                                              

California has been at the vanguard of environmental law and policy for over a century. The state adapts and expands these policies and laws as new information and technologies become available, and as previously unknown (or nonexistent) environmental issues emerged. The earliest water projects favored heavy-duty infrastructure like dams and canals to capture, control, and transport water from the wetter areas of the state to more populous and agricultural areas. California’s extensive surface water storage and delivery infrastructure originated with studies conducted in the 1870s, and with construction of dams and canals that began a few decades later. Subsequent water projects and public investments in water tended to build upon and improve existing infrastructure; a trend which continues until today. Public water projects are complicated by a legacy of convoluted private water rights that started during the Gold Rush era and further developed in courtroom battles between private landowners.[1]

However, our economic, social, and scientific understandings of water have improved substantially over the years. While dozens of water issues are extremely important, a recent study revealed that most water experts agree that improved management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water supply network is paramount. This study also identified the next four priorities to address: dysfunctional institutions at all levels of water governance, an unsustainable water supply, poorly managed groundwater, and the effects of climate change and flood risk. State government leaders are currently considering several proposals to address some of these concerns.

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 This is the third of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. The first explained California’s surface water infrastructure. The second focused on ground water management. This brief will address water quality and the fourth will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of the third brief: RuralWaterQualitybrief.pdf 

Water quality management in California

As with storage and delivery, water quality is managed at the local, state and federal levels. The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) administers many of California’s water programs through the State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB). The SWRCB operates through nine Regional Water Resources Control Boards (RWCBs) under authority from California’s main water quality law, the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.While the SWRCB and RWCBs  (together “State Water Boards”) are the primary agencies enforcing water quality laws and regulations in California, literally hundreds of other agencies and authorities are involved with water quality issues at some level, collaborating to develop and manage programs aimed at understanding and improving water quality statewide. Major state agencies that manage key water quality programs include the CA Department of Public Health (CA DPH) which ensures the quality of public drinking water, and the CA Natural Resources Agency.

 California’s multi-agency approach to water quality relies on delegated authority, which allows states to develop regulations and programs that meet or exceed applicable federal standards. For example, the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) apply to California waters, and the U.S. Congress  authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set water quality based standards and develop programs and regulations to maintain and improve water quality over time. EPA delegated authority to CalEPA to enforce major aspects of the CWA and SDWA. CalEPA divides this authority further between the State Water Boards and CA DPH, which often work closely with other agencies and local authorities to understand issues and implement programs that are authorized and funded under both state and federal law.  

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By Annie Beaman and Poppy Davis                                                  

 

This is the second of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. This brief focuses on ground water management. A third brief will address water quality and the fourth will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of this brief: CA-Groundwater-Storage-and-Delivery-Brief.pdf

 

Importance: Over 850 million acre feet of water is stored in the state’s 450+ groundwater reservoirs. Groundwater is a critical resource in California, supplying an average of 30-40% of total water statewide, and upwards of 60-70% in dry conditions. California consumes far more groundwater than any other state, pumping an average of 10-15 billion gallons per day.

Recharge: Groundwater recharge occurs naturally when surface water from precipitation, rivers and streams, and irrigation runoff percolates through the soil to aquifers. Aquifers are underground formations of permeable rock that can contain and transmit groundwater. Artificial recharge programs allow excess surface water to be stored and released slowly through canals, irrigation furrows or sprinkler systems, or spread on dedicated recharge fields for percolation into these same underground “reservoirs.” In some cases, water is injected directly into the subsurface via wells.

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Overdraft: Groundwater overdraft occurs when water is withdrawn at a faster rate than it can be replenished. Aquifer levels change from year to year based on environmental and other factors, and regular monitoring combined with responsible management can prevent long-term groundwater depletion. Overdraft contributes significantly to water quality problems in aquifers[i] and salinization of coastal aquifers, because the effects of groundwater pollution and sea water intrusion are magnified when water levels are low. Overdraft can also cause subsidence, wherein the land above depleted aquifers sinks downward. Imported water from statewide water programs can supplement the total amount of water available for use in overdrafted areas, but can rarely restore underground water levels completely.[ii]

Management: Groundwater is managed locally in California; there is no statewide law that governs the use or management of this resource, nor any requirement that local authorities report their activities to the state.[iii]  Literally hundreds of local water agencies and authorities oversee groundwater delivery infrastructure including pumping wells and irrigation systems. Under common law, private landowners have “overlying” or “correlative” rights to use groundwater, meaning that each owner may operate wells and irrigation systems that use “reasonable” amounts of water for “beneficial” purposes—broad categories that generally lack statewide regulation or oversight.[iv] California is the only remaining western state without a statewide groundwater management system in place. Instead, disputes over groundwater are addressed at the local level and by courts.

 

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This is the first of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. This brief explains California’s surface water infrastructure. The next brief will focus on ground water management. A third brief will address water quality and the fourth will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of the first brief: CA-Surface-Water-Brief-Poppy-Davis.pdf

The largest water projects in the state are the Central Valley Project (CVP) a Federal project administered by the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) of the Department of the Interior, and the State Water Project (SWP) a project of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). There are multiple smaller projects under both the BoR and the DWR.The CVP includes 22 reservoirs with a combined storage of 11 million acre-feet, of which 7 million acre-feet is delivered in an average year. The SWP includes 34 storage facilities, reservoirs and lakes; 20 pumping plants; 4 pumping-generating plants; 5 hydroelectric power plants; and about 701 miles of open canals and pipelines. It has a total storage 5.8 million acre-feet, and typically delivers about 3 million acre-feet a year. The CVP and SWP deliver water to local water projects who serve end users. 

“Water projects” are made up of multiple facilities and contractual relationships. The role of the BoR or DWR is to finance construction with an appropriation or a bond, and to build and own the infrastructure. Local agencies enter into contracts to pay back the construction costs, and cover annual operations and maintenance costs. These “contractors” receive annual allocations of the water from the project; which they manage locally. Contractors may purchase water from multiple sources and may make arrangements to store or bank an annual surplus within the project.  In a dry year different contractors on the same project may not feel equal pain, because some contractors may be able to use or purchase “banked” water and others may be receiving only a fraction (or none) of their normal allocation. “Exchange Contractors” are property owners whose contract rights to project water were received in exchange for enabling the project by surrendering their original water rights.

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Fresno

The Wall Street Journal profiled the city of Fresno's bleak finances October 31, 2013. Fresno, a city of 500,000 residents, had the least cash on hand of any of the 250 largest US cities. Fresno had less than a day's reserves, compared with a median 80+ days for large US cities.

One cause of Fresno's cash crunch is a $26 million convention-center garage that lost business to new facilities at California State University, Fresno in the northern part of the city. Garage deficits were financed in part by borrowing from other city funds. Eventually, the city began to lay off employees, some 1,200 or 30 percent of its 4,200 workers, between 2009 and 2013.

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By Dru Marion and Adam Kotin, California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN)

Drought image 2

Growers across California are among the first to feel the effects of the worst drought the state has seen in almost four decades. Mandated cutbacks in water distributions, along with depletions in available surface water and groundwater, are forcing farmers to dig deeper into their pockets while making tough decisions about crop planting and livestock management.

Generally, California relies on a few infrequent yet significant storms that make their way south from the Pacific Northwest during the winter months. This year, however, a warm and dry high-pressure system has lingered above the California coast since November, blocking storms that typically drop early winter precipitation across the state.

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