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April 2015, Volume 21, Number 2

California: Drought, Licenses

California is in its fourth year of drought After a wet December 2014, there was little rain in January 2015. February rains partially filled some reservoirs, including Shasta Lake, which rose from 40 percent to 60 percent of capacity, but the entire state was declared a drought emergency area.

Agriculture, which uses about 80 percent of the state's developed or storable water that can be delivered via dams and canals, fallowed 400,000 or about five percent of crop land in 2014, but over 500,000 acres are expected to be fallowed in 2015. The US Bureau of Reclamation said that most of its Central Valley Project farm water customers would receive no federal water in 2015, while the State Water Project said it would provide 20 percent of contracted water to its farmer customers.

By one estimate, the state's 860,000 acres of almonds each year require three times more water than the city of Los Angeles.

With the Sierra snowpack having only five percent of its usual water content in April 2015, Governor Jerry Brown ordered an average 25 percent reduction in urban water use across the state from 2013 levels. Per capita water use varies widely across California. The state's 400 water agencies must develop plans to reduce water use by 10 to 35 percent, with the highest reductions in cities where residents per capita usage is higher.

Agriculture was exempted from the state-ordered reductions in water use, prompting criticism. Brown countered: "farmers have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of land. They're pulling up vines and trees. Farm workers who are at the very low end of the economic scale here are out of work. There are people in agriculture areas that are really suffering."

However, farmers continue to plant perennial crops in areas that have falling groundwater reserves, depleting water supplies that took decades to accumulate. The acreage of almonds and other perennial crops continues to expand.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California bought some water from Feather River water districts for $700 an acre foot in 2015, up from $500 an acre foot in 2014. Growing rice, which requires three acre feet of water per acre, generates $1,000 to $1,500 in net revenue, while selling the water that would normally be used to grow rice can generate $2,100 an acre. Metropolitan normally gets a third of its water from the State Water Project, which is delivering 20 percent of normal allocations in 2015, and from the Colorado River, which is running at less than half of its normal flow.

Water System. California's water system depends on snow in the northern mountains, rivers that drain snowmelt into the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, and pumps that carry the water south via canals to farms and southern California. The delta, where fresh and salt water mix, is home to several threatened species such as the delta smelt whose dropping number limits pumping, prompting farmers to complain that federal regulators favor fish over food when they allow fresh river water to flow into the Pacific Ocean under the Golden Gate Bridge.

California, the last western state to regulate groundwater pumping, began to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act January 1, 2015. The state Department of Water Resources will identify groundwater basins that are a high or medium priority for Groundwater Sustainability Plans to prevent the over pumping of groundwater.

The law created Local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies that must develop plans to reduce over pumping by January 31, 2020 for critically over drafted basins, and by 2022 for high- and medium-priority basins. If these agencies fail to act, DWR can intervene, but the new law does not aim for sustainable pumping until the 2040s. Over drafted basins are expected to require farmers to install monitors on their pumps and report the water that they have pumped to the agencies.

Economists propose that landowners in each basin be allocated a sustainable share of available ground water based on their share of the land in the basin. Farmers who pump more than their sustainable share would have to replace their excess water usage by buying water from elsewhere or paying other farmers not to plant.

In March 2015, the state enacted a $1 billion plan to provide immediate relief to water-short communities and improve flood-control projects to help replenish depleted groundwater reserves once normal rainfall returns. The 2015 package of measures is similar to a $687 million package approved in 2014.

The drought has reduced the hydropower normally available from dams. California, Oregon and Washington are the US states generating the highest share of their electricity from hydropower. California normally gets 15 percent of its power from hydro, but expects less than 10 percent in 2015.

Mendota. A profile of Mendota, a city of 11,400 in western Fresno county, exemplifies the challenges of helping farm workers who may not have jobs in 2015. Many Mendota residents have incomes below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate during the winter months typically tops 30 percent and may not drop in summer if farmers leave their crop land idle.

Day laborers wait outside Lavanderia Sonora laundry and the Sonora Department Store in Mendota hoping to be selected by crew bosses and contractors seeking workers. Mayor Robert Silva says some Mendota residents are traveling one or two hours each way to find farm jobs.

The drought makes already bad conditions in Mendota worse, but ample rains would not make residents of Mendota rich. Even if farmers got all the water they wanted, many Mendota residents would be poor and unemployed, albeit fewer than when farmers get less water.

The federally funded Community Food Bank provides free staples to those who certify that their reduced incomes are due to the drought. Proteus Inc, a federally funded farm worker training program, has enrolled some ex-farm workers in training programs that, after graduation, should enable them to have higher earnings.

The state government is helping farm workers affected by the drought. La Cooperativa is distributing $10 million in emergency rental assistance and farm worker training programs are using $400,000 in state funds to train several hundred farm workers impacted by the drought so they can find nonfarm jobs.

Future. The drought prompted stories of the end of California's growth. California in 2015 had almost 39 million residents and 32 million vehicles, up from 16 million people in 1960. Its $2.2 trillion economy is the seventh largest among country economies, similar in size to the GDP of the UK, Brazil, and Italy and larger than the GDP of Russia, India, and Canada.

California has the highest poverty rate according to the Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account government-assistance programs, at over 23 percent in 2014. Almost 10 million California residents, a quarter of the population, received over $7 billion of the $66 billion paid by federal Earned Income Tax Credit to low earners with dependents. In 2014, the average EITC payment across the US was $2,400, and the maximum payment for working parents was $6,000.

Driver's Licenses. On January 1, 2015, California became the tenth state to issue driver's licenses to unauthorized foreigners. AB 60, approved in 2014, allows an estimated 1.4 million unauthorized foreigners who pass the state's driving test to receive special driver's licenses that allow them to drive but cannot be used as identification for federal purposes, such as boarding planes.

More foreigners sought licenses than expected. By the end of March 2015, almost 500,000 applied and over 150,000 received licenses The special license program is self-funded; fees paid by the foreigners cover the cost of testing them and issuing the licenses.

Some states may stop issuing special driver's licenses to unauthorized foreigners. Colorado, which issued almost 8,000 such driver's licenses between August 2014 and January 2015, prevented the state's DMV from issuing such licenses in January 2015. New Mexico may stop its special driver's licenses program, saying that there has been too much fraud involving local workers helping out-of-state unauthorized foreigners to get licenses.