Higher Food Prices, Drought Water Bank Possible if 2015 is Dry, Water Officials Tell State Board of Food and Ag

From a potential drought water bank to increased food prices and assistance for unemployed farmworkers, water planners on the local, state and federal levels are gearing up for a possible dry 2015.

That was the overview delivered today by water officials from many agencies who appeared before the California State Board of Food and Agriculture to discuss how another dry year might impact groundwater, agriculture, food prices, and water system operations. The discussion was part of a briefing on plans for 2015.

Richard Howitt, a resource economist with the University of California, Davis and its Center for Watershed Sciences, said food prices increased by .3% in 2014 over 2013 prices. He said the “buffer stock” of groundwater helped growers mitigate the loss of surface water and keep operations going. He cautioned that the buffer might not be there in 2015 if aquifers are low due to increased pumping in 2014. Food prices could go up by as much as 10%-15% in 2015 if major cutbacks in water deliveries continue and wells go dry, Howitt added.

Howitt also recommended that the state consider adopting some sort of clearing house for information on water sales that are occurring, including the going prices of water and what sales have been completed. He said purchasers of water were provided with little information this year about availability and price.

“Farmers this year were flying blind in terms of water markets…and some got blind-sided,” said Howitt.

Jay Lund, professor of environmental engineering at UC Davis and director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, said California is going into 2015 with 5 million acre-feet less than average of groundwater and 1 million acre-feet less  than average of surface water. He added that one positive elements of the drought is it has fostered more cross agency cooperation. 

Karla Nemeth, deputy secretary for water policy at the California Natural Resources Agency, outlined the food aid and rental assistance the state has deployed to laid off agricultural workers this year. She said such assistance also would be offered if 2015 proves to be another dry year.

Nemeth added that state and federal officials are “rolling up their sleeves” and working together to discuss operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project should the state experience another dry year. She added that more data on operations may be available in a month.

The state also is helping to lead a “guided discussion” about a potential drought water bank if it were needed, Nemeth added.

Nemeth said the state has made improvements in water conservation, but more is needed. She said more restrictions on water use and possibly rationing could occur if the drought worsened.

Gordon Burns, undersecretary of CalEPA, presented the board with details on the Groundwater Resources Management Act that was passed by the Legislature this year. He said the overarching goal of the act is to empower local entities to manage the groundwater resource.

“It’s not aimed at the drought,” Burns said of the act. “Groundwater sustainability is a long-term problem that needs a long-term solution.”

Burns added that the state also needs to expand its water storage – both surface and groundwater – and adhere to a statewide plan such as the Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Water Action Plan.

Burns said that legislation likely will be introduced next year that seeks to reform the groundwater adjudication process. An informational hearing on potential adjudication reforms is scheduled Nov. 20 from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in room 112 of the Capitol. The hearing is sponsored by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water.

California Water Commissioner Kim Delfino also spoke before the board and talked about how passage of Proposition 1 – the water bond – would give the state more money to increase storage projects. The Water Commission will be the entity that disperses that money. She said the process of determining the public benefits of specific projects would begin in earnest in January should the bond pass.

“I think it’s an opportunity to make wise investments to improve the Delta and groundwater recharge and also look at additional storage, even surface storage,” Delfino said.

Dave Orth, also a member of the California Water Commission who provided significant input on the groundwater management act, said it is critical that the state take an “integrated perspective” on its water and not operate in silos. He said the governor’s water action plan is a good example of an integrated approach.

Orth added that there is a lot of misinformation about what the new groundwater act actually does and officials need to help the various stakeholders more thoroughly understand the legislation.