California Drought

California’s drought will deal a severe blow to Central Valley irrigated agriculture and farm communities this year, and could cost the industry $1.7 billion and cause more than 14,500 workers to lose their jobs, according to preliminary results of a new study by the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences. The first thing to understand is that the water restrictions hitting growers in the Central Valley has nothing to do with the Salinas Valley.

There’s a different scenario in the Salinas Valley. By far the agricultural industry is the biggest user of water in Monterey County – 91.7 percent of all water used, according to research by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency. And growers hold all the power in how much they pump. So why are we continuing to pump all the water we want, as long as we want and whenever we want when we are in a drought?The short answer is, because we can. The longer answer is, like all water issues in California, complicated.

California water laws are extremely complex, with many of their origins harking back well over a century ago. Growers in the Salinas Valley are farming on lands that used to be Spanish land grants. As a result, water rights in the state are split into two primary categories: pre-1914 rights and post-1914 rights. In 1914 the California Legislature passed a law giving the State Water Resources Control Board far more power in issuing water rights. But growers in this valley have pre-1914 rights, meaning they are practically untouchable.

Nevertheless, “Growers are implementing water conservation every day,” said Robert Johnson, the chief of water resources planning for the county Water Resources Agency. “Millions of dollars are being spent on water conservation.” Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said growers not only use drip tape “as much as they can,” but over the past 50 years or so they have invested a lot of money in building two dams — Lakes San Antonio and Nacimiento — and in the Salinas Valley Water Project, whose best known feature is the “rubber dam” near the mouth of the Salinas River that can be moved to control the flow of the river. Manipulating the rubber dam can help with groundwater recharge.

Growers here get 100 percent of their irrigation water from underground aquifers, with the exception of those in the northern part of the county that receive a mix of Salinas River water and treated effluent from the Marina waste water plant. The Salinas Valley is unique in a number of ways, all of which conspire to prevent city and county officials from having much power to enforce concepts such as water rationing or pricing structures – the more you pump the more you pay. This is to no surprise since they agriculture profit is in the billions. There are no municipal water agencies in Monterey County – meaning even if a municipality wanted to control water use, it’s not theirs to manage.

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The Salinas Valley has been using recycle water in the area since 1998. Using recycled waste water for agriculture and landscaping has environmental benefits because it limits the waste water discharge into natural waterways while helping to preserve the supply of potable water for human consumption. Recycled water (tertiary-treated waste water) has been used by a majority of growers in the Monterey County Water Recycling Projects (MCWRP).

For its part, the City of Salinas has implemented successful water saving projects. Gary Petersen, the public works director for the city, said his unit is now routing the waste wash water coming out of produce processing facilities in Salinas to the Marina facility where it is treated and pumped out to growers connected to the purple pipes. Water from the Salinas River cannot be used because the flow released from Nacimiento reservoir is no longer making it all the way down to Marina.

Because California has been in a drought, the central coast has been depleted of water and this is a threat to the 2 billion dollar agriculture investment. An old idea has resurfaced to supply badly needed water to overdrafted wells northeast of Salinas. This project, among other things, aims to rescue an important Salinas River water right. “The East Side Canal project could very well not involve a canal at all, rather a series of pipelines diverting winter water from the Salinas River to an underground water subarea to the immediate northeast of Salinas, even encompassing some prime growing land west of Highway 101. Since this subarea has been one of the hardest hit groundwater basins in the valley, its prone to seawater intrusion and its suffering from decades of over-pumping. Data shows that water levels are significantly below mean sea level, an invitation for seawater to seep into this sponge-like underground basin, called an aquifer.

As a result, The East Side Canal is only one of a dozen or so projects under consideration by the Regional Advisory Committee, a group of water and agriculture stakeholders assembled by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency to craft projects that would satisfy an overarching state mandate. These stakeholders are looking into the water scarce in the City of Salinas.

“Right now the city is pumping 4 million gallons a day – more than 1 billion gallons annually – of treated waste wash water to growers connected to CSIP.

All the potable water suppliers are privately owned companies, including California Water Service Co. in Salinas and California American Water Co. along the Peninsula.


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