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STATEMENT: The Sacramento Valley Shows There’s a Better Way to Manage Water

October 1 marked the beginning of the new water year in California. And while 2023 provided an abundant amount of water, anyone who lives here knows we can’t assume 2024 will be the same. In fact, the only thing we know for certain is that our water supply is utterly unpredictable. California’s droughts and floods have always been cyclical but it is never certain when that cycle will shift. While this pattern has not changed, unfortunately, neither has the way we deal with our variable water supply, and it very much needs to change.

All of California must share our available water. Not just farms, families, and businesses, but the environment and wildlife as well. Unfortunately, many of the rules governing water distribution are out-of-date and do not utilize current science. What they do is attempt to pick winners and losers and the end result is that often, we all lose.

Let’s look at the Sacramento Valley as an example. The Sacramento Valley has a deep connection between the urban and rural areas that is reflected in Sacramento’s designation as America’s Farm to Fork Capital. This fertile region of the state grows rice, almonds, prunes, tomatoes, olives and more. Its rice fields also provide a critical winter stop along the Pacific Flyway for migrating waterfowl.

A year ago, 95% of the rice land in the Sacramento Valley’s Colusa County lay barren, producing nothing but dust, widespread unemployment, and an economic crisis. Farming had all but stopped in the region and the impact on the economy was clear; $1.3 billion in lost economic activity, 14,300 lost jobs, $732 million in lost labor income, and devastated supply chains.

Yes, 2022 was a very dry year, but the devastation inflicted on the Sacramento Valley could have been minimized if the rules regarding water flow were governed by a more updated approach. Narrowly-focused rules dictated that water supplies for farms be withheld, ostensibly to provide sufficient cold water to protect salmon in the Sacramento River. However, routinely taking that water away from farms and keeping it in the river has failed to deliver the rebound in salmon population we were told to expect.

The reasons for that failure are simple and they are based on current science. Salmon need things other than water to thrive. They need habitat, not rock-lined channels, and a place to rest and grow. They need the safety of passage to the ocean, protected from non-native predators and access to a food supply on their journey. And they need water within a range of safe temperatures, similar to what nature delivered on its own in the past.

By depriving farms of water in a critical year, local economies were devastated and yet those efforts also failed to benefit fish. This lose-lose dynamic could be avoided if we took a more holistic approach to managing water.

Innovative projects throughout Northern California that consider the entire ecosystem are having a remarkable impact on salmon survival and proving there is a better way.

Public water agencies, federal and state governments, environmental groups, and individual farmers are investing in projects like the Butte Creek Salmon Restoration Project that helped salmon numbers rise from a few hundred fish in the 1990s to over 10,000 per year today. On the Sacramento River, Painter’s Riffle is a project that restored a side channel, giving fish a place to rest, eat, and hide from predators on their journey to the ocean.

It is possible for farms, families, and the environment to not just co-exist, but support each other, by looking at the ecosystem as a whole and implementing policies that focus on sustainability for all. And the Sacramento Valley is proof that a better approach is possible.