Water rights fight- Half Moon Bay farmer Aldo Giusti says he's given up farming a 100-acre field
for lack of water.
By Nicole A. Freeling-Half Moon Bay Review--Photos by Mark Jordan
Since the Civil War, the fields surrounding the Johnston Ranch have been kept green in the summer by two old sets of wooden planks dropped into Arroyo Leon to form reservoirs.
But this year, under an edict to protect endangered salmon, the dams remain open - and instead of leafy rows of mustard greens and brussels sprouts, there are acres of mostly unplanted dirt.
The California Department of Fish and Game and the property's owner, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), say leaving the dams open is necessary to protect critical populations of steelhead salmon juveniles, which travel the creek to get to the ocean from spawning grounds high in the watershed.
But the Giusti family, which has farmed the property for more than 50 years, says it is a case of farmer versus fish.
"That dam is at least 70 percent of our water," said 73-year-old Aldo Guisti, who bought the farm when he was 21. He sold it to POST four years ago, but continues to lease it. "If they take away our water, they take away our farm."
"The (farmers) need the water when it is dry, but that is also when the steelhead need to move through there," Rob Floerke, Fish and Game's central coast manager, said.
"Once those boards (in the dam) are dropped, it is a very dangerous structure" for the fish, he said.
Giusti says 105 of the 185 acres he usually plants remain fallow this year as the farmers search for an alternate source of water.
He is trying to place two wells on the property, which he said will be enough to sustain his existing 80 acres - if he's lucky. "It is a gamble," he said.
POST has given Giusti Farms another 70 acres to plant at Purissima Farms, across the highway from the Johnston Ranch, where there is plenty of water.
"Economically, we are very fortunate. The farm will be fine," Aldo's son John, who has grown up on the farm, said.
"But when you have been in this business all your life, it is more than economics. You develop an emotional connection to the land. My father has given his life to make this land productive," he said.
For the last several years, Fish and Game has reluctantly agreed to allow the Giustis to dam the creek.
In March of this year, however, the department informed the Giustis they would not get a permit.
Then in June, after entreaties from the Giustis and the San Mateo County Farm Bureau, the department granted the farmers permission to close one of the two dams, with the condition that they complete an environmental review and allow at least 90 gallons per minute to flow through.
An environmental review would take at least several months, however, and, according to the Giustis, it would be impossible to allow that much water over the dam. They elected to keep the dam open.
The situation is complicated by the fact that, while the Giustis farm the land, the owner is POST, which acquired it, in part, with state conservation funds.
"It is not about our views on these dams. It is about the law," POST President Audrey Rust said.
"If you have a situation where an endangered species is going to be killed or harmed, you have to do something."
There is a long-term solution, one which everyone from farmers to
conservation groups seem to agree would help farmers and fish share the water.
It involves the creation of so-called offstream impoundments - ponds to which water is diverted during the rainy winter months. These can be drained in the summer without disrupting the streams.
Creating such reservoirs would cost $1.2 to $1.8 million according to POST. It would be a time-consuming process with thorny permitting issues.
But it could save the Johnston Ranch fields from going permanently fallow.
POST is in the process of seeking conservation grants to fund such an effort. Rust said she believes such a project is fundable.
The Giustis are also applying for grants to create the reservoirs, from conservation funds available in the new farm bill. (See story, Page 3A.)
Jack Olsen of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau, which is helping in the effort, said it would be several years before a shovel ever hits the ground on the project.
For the Giustis, that is a long time to wait.
"This is a day-to-day business," Ed Giusti said. "People don't understand what it is like to be a farmer. By the time they finally get this process complete, the guy's out of business."
The Giustis also point out that an offstream impoundment would only water about 50 acres, much less than the dam provides.
But many close to the situation say it could be a template for solving similar resource battles.
"It relieves the rivers when they are flashing, as opposed to damming them when water is low and situation critical for everyone," Floerke said.
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