Home Business California farms dried up a river for months. Nobody stopped them.

California farms dried up a river for months. Nobody stopped them.

by SuperiorInvest

During California’s most recent drought, officials went to great lengths to safeguard water supplies, issuing emergency regulations to curb use by thousands of farms, utilities and irrigation districts.

It still wasn’t enough to stop farmers in the state’s agricultural heartland from draining several miles of a major river for nearly four months in 2022, in a previously unreported episode that raises questions about California’s ability to monitor and manage its water amid of worsening droughts. .

It is not uncommon, during periods of drought, for farmers and other water users in California to thin streams to a trickle in some places. But the severity and duration of the river’s decline in 2022 — in this case, the Merced, where a stream gauge showed no water passing nearly every day from June to early October — stood out even to experts.

“I was very surprised to see a river this size without water,” said Jon Ambrose, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service who visited the parched Merced River bed in August. “This is just not something we see. This is not something that should be considered normal.”

The Merced River originates in Yosemite National Park. It runs through glacier-carved canyons and meanders for approximately 60 miles through the Central Valley before emptying into the San Joaquin River, which nourishes the southern half of the valley.

California’s top water regulator, the State Water Resources Control Board, learned of Lower Merced’s bone-dry conditions in late October 2022, only after they had begun to improve, said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the board. board in charge of water rights, in an interview this week.

In investigating the matter, the board has so far found that the river most likely dried up as a result of people drinking water legally, Ekdahl said. In other words, local farmers don’t appear to have violated the board’s drought controls that year by slurping up every last drop.

“That’s where the layman would immediately say, ‘Well, how is this allowed to happen?’” Mr. Ekdahl said. The reason, he said, is that during droughts, California’s water system is more geared toward protecting the rights of water users than helping the environment. In general, “you may drink the water that you are authorized to drink under your permit or license until you are expressly told not to.”

California became an agricultural power by dominating its rivers and distributing their flows. But as a warming climate intensifies the state’s flood and drought cycles, its water delivery system is under pressure.

The State grants a high degree of privilege to older users, or those who have been taking and using river flows for a long time. This has helped encourage large investments in irrigation. Now, however, virtually every drop has been reclaimed for one purpose or another, and officials are finding it increasingly difficult to manage supplies and protect the environment without harming the interests of producers and other long-established users.

California was experiencing its third consecutive year of drought in the summer of 2022 when staff members from NOAA Fisheries and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife found miles of lower Merced severely dry. The upper part of the river was still flowing strongly, flow gauges showed. But as it approached its confluence with the San Joaquin, it had become a series of intermittent pools, endangering threatened fish species such as rainbow trout and Chinook salmon.

“Our species are on the brink of extinction,” said Mónica Gutiérrez, a NOAA Fisheries biologist who visited Merced in August. “We can’t afford to have another year with a dry river bed.”

According to state data, water users in lower Merced include dairies, almond growers and vineyards that are part of E. & J. Gallo Winery, which calls itself the world’s largest family-owned wine and spirits company. A spokeswoman for Gallo declined to comment.

California’s drought controls in 2022 cut off supply to many water users in the San Joaquin Basin, but not all. Many of the oldest users, or those who claim to have been using water for the longest time, were not cut off.

Even if the state water board had learned of the Merced’s withering conditions earlier that summer, it still could have taken months to enact new regulations to protect the river, said Mr. Ekdahl, the board official. Imposing new rules to prevent it from drying out in the future would also be a long and complicated process, he said.

“A dry river is a catastrophe,” said Keiko Mertz, policy director for Friends of the River, a conservation group in Sacramento. “The water board must anticipate, manage and prevent this from happening.”

California’s water board doesn’t have the staff it would need to monitor river levels across the state, said Nell Green Nylen, a water policy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. As a result, she said, “I guess there are smaller streams around the state, and maybe even some larger ones, where things like this happen all the time.”

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