Water woes take top billing, regardless of where you farm

Vicky BoydFor nearly eight hours recently, I listened to impassioned pleas from farmers, fishermen, politicians, environmentalists and the public about the California Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to nearly double the amount of free-flowing water in Stanislaus River tributaries.

Unimpaired flows of 40 percent from February through June would aid struggling fish populations and improve San Francisco Bay-Delta water quality, according to the state.

The hearing I attended on the Phase I proposal is likely a preview for what’s in store for Sacramento River tributaries in the Sacramento Valley, where most of the state’s rice is grown. Water board scientists plan to analyze unimpaired flows ranging from 35 to 75 percent for each tributary as well as river temperatures and Delta outflows as part of Phase II.

Should the water board prevail, the next step would be to overhaul the state’s water rights system, a legal hierarchy for water diversions established more than a century ago. But California isn’t the only state grappling with water demand exceeding supply.

The Arkansas Water Plan, updated in 2014, predicts a groundwater deficit of 8.2 million acre-feet annually by 2050 if the current source ratio of 71:29 percent groundwater-surface water continues. The plan identified several projects that could close the gap by replacing groundwater with surface water. But the proper infrastructure is currently lacking to take advantage of surplus supplies.

Included in the plan’s recommendations were increasing irrigation water-use efficiency and conservation over the next decade. The plan also recommends determining current irrigation water-use efficiency for various crops and establishing goals or efficiency targets. Whether those goals are voluntary or by regulation remains a big question.

Prompted by declines in the Mississippi River Alluvial Aquifer of 1 to 1.5 feet per year over the past four decades, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality launched the Delta Sustainable Water Resources Task Force in 2014. Among its duties is gathering data through a well metering program and encouraging farmers to adopt conservation techniques.

As a result, the Mississippi State University Extension Service has conducted numerous field days and workshops promoting water-conserving technology, such as moisture sensors, alternate wetting and drying, and surge valves. But the state’s posture has led to coffee shop concerns that Mississippi will
soon limit groundwater pumping.

Listening to all of these water worries brings to mind a quote supposedly uttered by Mark Twain. The actual orator may be debatable, but the sentiments aren’t: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting (over).”

Vicky Boyd
Editor