U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland holds a press conference with federal, state and local leaders while meeting at a Madera, Calif. farm to work on water solutions for farmers and highlight investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. Credit: Craig Kholruss / Fresno Bee

What's at stake?

State and federal officials say that California's food and agriculture industry is important to the region's economy, but with climate change an drought, it must determine how to better utilize the critical resource of water.

Led by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, federal and state leaders on Wednesday pledged “once in a generation” investments in water projects to help farmers in California’s central San Joaquin Valley through a crippling drought.

“The worsening drought crisis across the west is not just bad for business and farms. It’s an existential threat to our communities and to our livelihoods,” Haaland said during a visit to a Madera-based Specialty Crop Company almond orchard.

Haaland was joined by Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; Congressman Jim Costa, a Democrat from Fresno; Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary of Natural Resources; Karen Ross, California’s secretary of Food and Agriculture; and local farmers.

Haaland and others used the news conference to highlight ways they said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act would benefit Central Valley farmers.

President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law on Tuesday. The legislation, which was opposed by all Republican representatives, includes $4 billion for water management and conservation efforts across the West, according to a news release from the Department of the Interior.

Additionally, the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November 2021 legislation allocates a total of $8.3 billion for Reclamation infrastructure projects to repair aging water delivery systems, invest in water recycling, secure dams and protect aquatic ecosystems in an effort to “tackle historic drought conditions,” said the release.

“Together under President Biden’s leadership, these represent some of the largest investments to drought resilience in the nation’s history,” Haaland said. She added that it’s time to use “all the tools in the toolbox” to “build resilient communities and protect our water supplies for people and the natural environment for generations to come.”

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, center, talks with farmer Kevin Herman, left, and Congressman Jim Costa while touring a Madera County, Calif. farm with federal, state and local leaders and working on water solutions for farmers as well as highlighting investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. Credit: Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee

Her visit followed a round table discussion on Wednesday morning with leaders of irrigation districts and state and local water agencies to learn more about the challenges of the ongoing drought in California.

Touton, of the Bureau of Reclamation, said these “once in a generation investments” will give the federal government the resources to work with partners on the ground to solve the challenges caused by drought and climate change.

“The reality is we can’t do this alone,” Touton said, adding that all water users must come together “to have these hard discussions and find a way forward.”

Costa thanked Haaland for her leadership and visit and stressed that, as the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior, and a former U.S. representative from New Mexico, she’s well poised to lead the important post to administer and be the “custodian and guardian of America’s natural resources.” Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe.

But not everyone was pleased with Haaland’s visit.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Congresswoman Connie Conway, who was sworn into office in June to finish Devin Nunes’ term, welcomed the secretary to the Central Valley but criticized her for not including Republicans in Wednesday’s discussions.

“While it’s disappointing that Secretary Haaland did not invite a single Republican Member of Congress to any of her events or meetings, at least she considers the Valley a worthy stop,” she said in the statement.

Will federal dollars help Central Valley farmers?

California’s agricultural industry uses approximately 40% of California’s water, according to the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California, but the drought has hurt business.

A February report by UC Merced researchers found that the agricultural industry lost over $1 billion of revenue due to the drought in 2021 alone.

Federal and state leaders say more efficient water systems, supported by state and federal investments, will help create a more resilient agriculture sector. While it wasn’t immediately clear how much money would come directly to the Central Valley, state and federal officials said that the recent legislation will help strengthen the region’s water infrastructure.

“Between federal and state funding, we have a tremendous opportunity to help farming; to help the San Joaquin Valley become resilient over time to these changing conditions that result from climate change,” said Crowfoot, from California’s natural resource board.

In addition to the federal funds in the infrastructure and inflation bills, Crowfoot said California is investing $8 billion in water resilience improvements, which he described as “a generational amount of funding.”

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, center, tours a Madera County, Calif. farm with federal, state and local leaders while working on water solutions for farmers and highlighting investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. Credit: Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee

But Crowfoot said there’s more to be done and that California Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to “double-down” on water projects that recharge groundwater aquifers, surface storage, stormwater capture in urban areas, water recycling, improve water efficiency and more.

“We in California are very focused on utilizing the crisis we now face, seizing the opportunity of this once-in-a-generation investment of federal and state resources and delivering more drought resilience over time,” he said.

Touton, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, pointed to the $187 million federal investment to upgrade the Friant-Kern Canal, a project that broke ground in January, and $100 million in funds for the B.F. Sisk Dam at San Luis Reservoir.

Ultimately, state and federal leaders stressed the importance of the state’s agricultural industry and the need for more collaboration among affected partners to use water efficiently but stopped short of criticizing the industry’s overpumping of groundwater aquifers that has led to subsidence in the Central Valley.

“Food is a natural security issue,” Costa said. “But with climate change, we have to determine how we can better utilize that critical resource of water.”

Farmers adopting water-saving technologies are ‘part of the solution’

Kevin Herman has been farming in California’s Central Valley since the late 1970s. He and his wife, Diane, founded the Specialty Crop Company in 1989, according to their website, and have over 12,000 acres of figs, almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, citrus, kiwi and persimmons, and other crops across Fresno, Madera, and Merced counties.

But in recent years, Herman said the company has had to fallow hundreds of acres of land due to the drought.

Last year, the company fallowed over 400 acres, and Herman expects to fallow another 320 acres this year.

“It’s pretty simple, California is running out of water,” Herman said Wednesday, citing climate change, drought and California’s population growth over the years as major factors.

Fallowing land has a ripple effect in both the food supply chain and in the local community, he said.

“This affects not only me and our family, but our employees who in some cases may be laid off or have a reduced work week,” he said. In addition, it impacts everyone from the fertilizer and box suppliers he works with to the local county’s tax sales and property tax revenues.

Herman said that while agriculture is trying to do its part by reducing water use — through tools like drip irrigation, deficit irrigation, groundwater recharge, more efficient water delivery systems and land fallowing — he said he hopes the Department of the Interior will help with more water storage projects.

“No one is exempt from the problem, whether cities, wildlife, or farming,” he said. “We all need more water.”

Since 2014, California has helped fund more than 1,100 farms with water efficiency programs, Ross said, adding that “very conservative estimates” show these programs have saved 1.5 million acre-feet of water.

Newsom is “very supportive” of expanding funding for these programs, Ross said. So far, California has invested $123 million in water-saving projects, has earmarked an additional $50 million in this year’s budget and is debating an additional $60 million in the California Legislature.

Meanwhile, The Inflation Reduction Act has also allocated $20 billion to fund sustainable agriculture projects through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ross said these new technologies are an important part of the drought conversation.

“Farmers like Kevin, who keep adopting new technologies… are part of the solution,” she said.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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