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Experts help local growers navigate the waters
Ellen Hanak
At the Almond Board of California’s “Navigating the Waters” event, keynote speaker and California’s Water Policy Center director Ellen Hanak shared with local growers the five things they should know about California’s water. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Water use in the Central Valley has been at the forefront of conversation for years and continues to be both a prominent and complex issue which affects farmers throughout the region. This led business owners, growers and other water stakeholders to pack into the Modesto DoubleTree’s Grand Ballroom Tuesday morning to hear leading experts speak on critical issues facing California agriculture.

“Navigating the Waters,” hosted by the Almond Board of California, brought together presidents, managers, CEOs and directors from some of the area’s top water agencies for an event aimed at helping almond growers make informed decisions when it comes to the storage and management of surface water, including keynote speaker Ellen Hanak.

As director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, Hanak has turned the center into a critical source of information and guidance for natural resource management, authoring dozens of reports, articles and books on water policy.

Nearly three quarters of the room raised their hands on Tuesday when Hanak asked almond farmers to identify themselves, and during her keynote speech she shared with them facts that they should know about their state’s water.

She told them that, for starters, the San Joaquin Valley needs to address its long-term groundwater deficiency – a situation that has become serious in the last decade as more water is used in adherence of environmental regulations. Since then, nearly 2 million acre-feet of water per year has been over drafted, she said, and it’s a hole that must be filled soon.

“It’s simple: You have to either add more water or reduce the amount that you’re using, and it’s probably going to have to be a combination of both,” Hanak said.

Luckily, Hanak talked about a way for farmers to help the situation. There’s some scope for augmenting local supplies to fill the gap, she said, pointing out that about a quarter of that deficit could be refilled through the recharging of groundwater.

By applying excess water to their crops, growers can help replenish aquifers, made evident by a 2017 effort spearheaded by Aaron Fukuda of the Tulare Irrigation District. Fukuda’s district worked with 14 local growers in the study to facilitate intentional recharge of 6,800 acre-feet of water (more than 2 billion gallons).

When applied during the dormant season, extra water has no negative effects on almond trees, meaning farmers can help replenish the Valley’s groundwater with little adversity. With 5.2 million acres of irrigated crop land in the Valley, there’s potential for recovery and then some, Hanak pointed out.

“San Joaquin Valley agriculture can thrive while managing water demand,” she said.

The Valley’s agriculture – and its water supply – can also thrive through collaboration. Specifically, Hanak said, different water stakeholders like farmers, water agencies and regulatory board coming together with pragmatic approaches to help “reinvigorate the environment.”

This includes different parties working together on a voluntary settlement for environmental flows, like those that the State Water Resources Control Board wish to implement in the San Joaquin River. Currently, the Board is working with stakeholders throughout the Valley to incorporate voluntary agreements in the flow proposal, which they hope to adopt by the end of the year.

Former Chair and member of the SWRCB Arthur Baggett spoke earlier in the event and shared some of the downfalls of those unimpaired flows, which, if implemented, would greatly reduce Valley communities’ access to water.

The increased flows are meant to restore the local ecosystem, improving the ability of salmon and other fish to migrate to and from their natal streams to the ocean, reduce the concentration of river pollutants and lower water temperatures. The proposal ignores some key elements, said Baggett, like climate change, which has affected runoff water and the temperature in the area.

“You can’t restore an ecosystem to where it was 150 years ago, but you can rehabilitate it and that’s a conversation that needs to take place,” he said.

Other speakers at the Almond Board’s event included Agricultural Council of California President Emily Rooney, who shared the benefits of Senate Bill 623 (the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund), and California Water Commission member David Orth, who provided ways of engagement for growers to stay active in the water process, such as attending local Groundwater Sustainability Agency meetings.

“I think it’s critically important that as we talk with growers and start developing position points for these core groups communicating with GSAs, the common theme that we’re getting is ‘flexibility,’” Orth said. “(They) want GSAs to implement programs that give the broadest range of choices possible and to make the decisions that have to be made at your level.”

According to Hanak there are about 20,000 irrigated farms throughout the San Joaquin Valley, and the most crucial factor that can contribute to their success when it comes to water is cooperation.

“The San Joaquin Valley’s problems can’t be solved farm by farm,” she said. “Cooperation is going to be essential to all of the things that are waiting to happen.”