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Commonsense measures needed to fight California’s water mismanagement

The Hill Op-Ed

The lights of food shortages are blinking red — now is the time to do everything in our power to ensure the safety and security of our domestic food supply.
Read the Op-Ed in the Hill

Sticker shock at the grocery store has become the norm for many American families, with food prices increasing by 11.4 percent in 2022. According to the USDA, an average family of four is paying $131 more per month this year, and groceries now account for 20 percent of an average household’s income. Since 1959 the U.S. has been a net food exporter of agricultural goods, but for the second time in the last three years, the U.S. will be a net agricultural food importer. The ongoing war in Ukraine, China’s growing influence on the U.S. agriculture industry, and supply chain backlogs should all serve as warning signs that the security of our domestic food supply is at risk.

The lights of food shortages are blinking red — now is the time to do everything in our power to ensure the safety and security of our domestic food supply.

California, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, and Illinois are the states with the highest food production in the country. While many think of Hollywood and Pacific coastlines when they picture California, it’s also an agricultural powerhouse, accounting for 11 percent of the United States’ agricultural cash receipts. With less than one percent of the country’s farmland, California’s Central Valley grows a quarter of our nation’s food. The agricultural abundance of the region supplies food for the entire nation, making it a critical player in insuring our nation’s food supply.

But in 2021, extreme drought cost the agricultural industry in California over $1.1 billion and nearly 7,000 full and part time jobs. Thousands of acres of agricultural land had to be taken out of production because farmers didn’t have a reliable water supply to grow food. When we conducted a day of site visits in October last year, we heard firsthand from water districts and community members about the devastating impact that politically biased water management is having on the agricultural industry in the state and the communities built up around it.

Fast forward nearly six months later, we find that a series of atmospheric rivers have caused widespread flooding throughout many parts of the state. While this desperately needed rain has helped to replenish reservoirs and depleted groundwater, California lacks the proper water storage necessary to save this water for the inevitable dry years to come. After years of receiving none of their contracted water supply, farmers are now trying to take on more of this water and even flooding their fields to recharge groundwater and prevent critical infrastructure and property damage in downstream communities. The excess water is causing the reemergence of Tulare Lake and this will put huge amounts of enriched farmland out of production for years to come. When you’re eliminating hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, employment will drop, and food prices will continue to rise.

Rarely has California’s imprudence been more clearly exposed. The state now has more than enough water to supply farms, communities, and homes for years to come, but lacks the ability to hold onto it.

Two weeks ago, The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries held a field hearing on the problems that have plagued California water and necessary steps to ensure California’s agricultural abundance is not squandered by extreme environmentalists. During the hearing, we heard a long list of policy failures that have contributed to the preventable situation in California today, and how the Working to Advance Tangible and Effective Reforms (WATER) for California Act would address some of these challenges.

The WATER for California Act was one of the bills discussed during the hearing and will be marked up in the House Natural Resources Committee this week. It focuses on infrastructure, accountability, and operational certainty to better manage California’s water and make these communities more resilient to the predictable years of drought that are to come. Getting this bill signed into law is one of the many actions we need to take to ensure the stability of our nation’s food supply.

Raising an existing reservoir is an affordable and straightforward way of increasing water storage capacity — and even those projects face enormous political hurdles. It took 34 years to raise the existing dam at Lake Success 10 feet, resulting in an extra 20,000 acre-feet of water storage. The next dam we should be raising in California is Shasta Dam, the most affordable cost per acre water storage project in the state. The WATER for California Act provides eligibility for funding for the Shasta project, which the Biden infrastructure bill explicitly wrote out. It also reauthorizes the successful surface water storage project program established under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which passed with bipartisan support under President Obama in 2016.

Without a reliable water supply, farmers, ranchers, and producers in California’s Central Valley won’t be able to grow the food that we must have on our store shelves and dinner tables. While we can’t control the weather, we can control the ridiculously complex and contradictory laws and regulations that control how much we’re able to pump and which critical storage projects we’re able to build or use.

Farmers are the stewards of the earth and are always looking for ways to use water more efficiently and to grow crops more resilient to drought, especially in California. The myth that farmers are somehow wasting water is absurd – unless you think growing food is wasting water. Water supply problems in California will have nationwide consequences unless action is taken to ensure that commonsense wins out over environmental and political extremism.