Farmers have griped for years about how environmental restrictions on the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have pinched their operations.

Now an economic report puts actual numbers to that griping.

The report, by UC Berkeley professor David Sunding, looks at how nearly 20 years of restrictions have affected farmers, cities, jobs and wages.

But it doesn’t say how the fish are doing.

“It’s up to others to fill out the other side of the ledger — how the fish are doing,” said Sunding. “I’m not a biologist so this is just one important piece of information.”

(Spoiler alert, the number of delta smelt were at an all-time low last summer, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.)

Wherever you come down on the fish issue, Sunding’s report is important.

It’s the first time anyone has added up the resources that have been given to the delta — by taking them away from people — and quantified the impacts.

Sunding not only looked at the past 20 years, he projected the impact of current trends 30 years into the future.

The numbers aren’t pretty.

  • Environmental regulations have meant an average yearly loss of 1.3 million acre- feet of water for cities and agriculture.
  • Water restrictions have cost cities $5 billion, expected to grow to $10 billion, to pay for alternative water supplies and conservation measures.
  • Less water has resulted in a loss of $900 million in wages, mostly for farmworkers. That’s projected to grow to $4 billion over 30 years.
  • Since 2000, the Central Valley has seen 55,000 acres of farmland taken out of production each year. That number is expected to grow to 195,000 acres fallowed per year, according to the report.

That’s mostly because of the addition of SGMA, or the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will restrict the amount of groundwater farmers can pump to make up for the loss of surface water from the delta.

“If you don’t have access to that groundwater, you’re going to have more fallowing and more job loss,” Sunding said.

That’s where Kern County’s obsession with groundwater banking has turned out to be an ace in the hole.

I went over crop reports for Kern in 2000 and 2015 and while there’s been some reduction in harvested acres (about 31,000 acres), it’s small compared to other areas.

“Kern County is less vulnerable to water shortages than other parts of the state,” Sunding agreed. “The fallowing numbers are primarily on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where they don’t have such good groundwater reserves.”

Those crop reports also reveal how Kern farmers switched from lower-value row crops to permanent crops like nuts and grapes, which substantially increased overall ag valuation.

But it also means farmers need a steady, year-round supply of water since trees can’t be plowed under after harvest season.

Sunding’s report was immediately touted by a number of political groups as evidence that environmental restrictions have done more harm than good.

Others took the report as an endorsement of the “California Water Fix,” the tunnels project being pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would route water around a portion of the delta to avoid impacting fish.

Sunding insisted the report has nothing to do with the California Water Fix or affixing a “good” or “bad” label on environmental regulations.

“This is about public policy,” he said. “Just like any other analysis of public programs, such as Medicare, or housing vouchers, or anything else. You want to see how that intervention performs and what benefits it creates.

“We’ve had 20 years of history tightening environmental regulations in the delta. This is a first attempt to add up what it has meant for people.”

While I had him on the phone, I asked if Sunding felt California needed to change the confusing water rights system? And what his thoughts were on water markets?

Don’t mess with the rights, he said.

And, yes, a true water market could be a win for everyone by creating more efficient water use, thereby reducing pressure to develop new water sources, he said.

Getting in the way of all of that, though, is a regulatory quagmire.

And he wasn’t even talking about the Endangered Species Act.

He was talking about water transfers.

“Getting things done at the state board is way more difficult than it should be.”

Regulations are so thorny, the Water Resources Control Board failed to implement a drought water bank, which would have allowed transfers between willing sellers and buyers and could have eased some pain over the past five years.

The state used such transfers in the 1997-2002 drought.

“They couldn’t get the permitting done this time around.”

Yup, that sounds like California.

Contact Lois Henry at 395-7373 or Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.