Mar 3, 2022
Drought means no water for many California irrigators
Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau

Zero. That’s how much water is being allocated to Central Valley Project irrigation contractors north and south of the delta this year.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement last week marked the second year in a row that thousands of California farmers and ranchers were told they will get no federal surface-water deliveries.

The economic fallout may well be significant. A new report from the University of California, Merced, said agriculture in the state lost 8,750 jobs, forfeited $1.1 billion in earnings and fallowed 395,000 acres of farmland in 2021. That was as severe drought barred federal deliveries and curtailed water allotments.

Elizabeth Jonasson of Fresno-based Westlands Water District said it’s important to recognize that fallowing land has “a very real human impact, especially here in the valley.

“Our communities are relying on agriculture as their means to provide for their family, either directly or indirectly,” she said. “With the fallowing of land, it’s not just an abstract concept for many—it’s felt in the families and in our communities.”

Sacramento River settlement contractors and San Joaquin River exchange contractors—holders of pre-1914 water rights that predate the Central Valley Project and the State Water Resources Control Board—were notified last week that 2022 has been designated a critical year.

That means “we would have a 75% water supply, which still for us means that we’re significantly short of meeting our internal water supply needs,” said Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District in Willows, which has water rights dating to 1883.

Chris Scheuring, senior counsel for the California Farm Bureau, said the promise of enhanced water supplies from early winter storms has evaporated.

“We had this marvelous December that we thought was going to help us rebound a little bit, but then the guns went silent in January and February,” Scheuring said. “We haven’t seen a speck of rain in most places for two months.”

The result is “a white-knuckle situation” for growers and irrigators, said Jeff Sutton, general manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority.

“This circumstance is unprecedented,” said Sutton, whose authority serves 150,000 acres and 17 water districts in four counties on the west side of the Sacramento Valley. Sutton recalled 0% allocations in 2014, 2015 and 2021, but said growers were able to get by with transfers and groundwater. This time, “with the reservoir levels lower than we’ve ever seen historically at this time of year, it’s going to make one of the most difficult years in our history,” Sutton said.

Water contractors in the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project, which delivers water to 1 million acres of farmland, have been allocated 15% of their Class 1 water and none of their Class 2 water. Class 1 covers the first 800,000 acre-feet available; a 15% allocation works out to 120,000 acre-feet. Class 2 is the next available amount, up to 1.4 million acre-feet.

The Sierra snowpack has dwindled since storms swelled it to 160% of average on Dec. 30. By Feb. 25, the snowpack had declined to 65% of normal seasonal levels.

As of Feb. 27, Shasta Lake—the Central Valley Project’s main reservoir on the Sacramento River—stood at 37% of capacity and 52% of its historical average. The San Luis Reservoir was at 44% of capacity and 55% of average.

Based on the latest forecast, this year’s inflow to Shasta, Oroville, Folsom and New Melones reservoirs is projected to drop by 1.2 million acre-feet. Lake Oroville is key to feeding the State Water Project, which announced a 15% allocation last month.

“That’s not a loss of water that’s in the reservoirs,” Reclamation official Kristin White said. “That’s a loss of projected inflow to the reservoirs all the way through the end of September. Without significant precipitation, this may continue to decrease further.”

Justin Fredrickson, a California Farm Bureau water and environmental policy analyst, said he’s seeing a “compressed” water year, with consequences for the snowpack.

“The snowmelt process appears to be starting earlier, too,” Fredrickson said. “Where it used to be that the snow would last into the summer, now by the time we get into the beginning of the summer, most of it’s already melted during spring.”

The lack of water will result in empty fields up and down the valley, farmers and water officials said. Sutton said his authority’s jurisdiction includes about 85,000 acres of permanent crops, predominantly almonds, that can’t be fallowed.

“I think we’ll see nominal, if any, annual crops planted,” Sutton said, noting these largely include tomatoes, sunflowers and vine seeds. “I think all of those lands will be fallowed, and any water will be dedicated to preserving (farmers’) permanent-crop investments.”

Bettner said last year’s reduction took 20,000 acres out of production, mainly rice. The district voluntarily cut back from last year’s 75% to about 65% to help the salmon runs, he added. As for alternatives, there really aren’t any at the moment.

“We recharge about 100,000 acre-feet of water annually into the groundwater every year,” Bettner said. “We don’t really pump a lot mainly because of our settlement contract.” He added: “We are definitely going to work through the process likely to probably install additional groundwater wells so we would have a backup supply for our landowners.”

A similar situation is developing in the San Joaquin Valley. Ryan Ferguson, who grows pistachios, almonds, tomatoes and cotton in Fresno and Kings counties and serves as board president of Westlands Water District, is already cutting back.

“Last year, we had a 0% allocation as well, but last year I farmed more acres than I’m going to this year,” Ferguson said. “After we received a 0% allocation, I cut additional acres just because of well reliability. We wanted to have a little bit more cushion, so we’re fallowing out about 40% of our acreage this year.” That means no row crops, he added.

Ferguson is pumping groundwater and carrying over supplemental water he bought last year.

“Westlands is actively pursuing the acquisition of supplemental water,” purchased from willing sellers on the open market, said Jose Gutierrez, Westlands’ chief operating officer. The sellers are generally on the American River watershed, in the Sacramento Valley and the New Melones watershed. They also include exchange contractors with senior water rights south of the delta, he added.

“We have a long-term contract with those exchange contractors to buy water,” Gutierrez said. “But they’re not obligated to sell us water when they’re not receiving 100% of their allocation.”

Ferguson sees “tough decisions” ahead.He said, “There’s probably going to be almond orchards that are pushed out while they’re still in their prime production, so growers can allocate their water that they do have to younger plantings.”

Scheuring noted that California voters overwhelmingly approved a water bond in 2014 to significantly expand storage for dry years. Construction has yet to begin.

“What’s difficult to understand is that we haven’t made more progress on some of the storage solutions that might help mitigate a year like this,” Scheuring said. “I’m talking about the Proposition 1 funds for new storage and surface projects or groundwater storage projects,” which he calls an “additional savings account to help us get through a year like this.”

Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau

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