After the three driest years on record, California experienced its wettest three weeks on record last month and has since returned to dry conditions. Now water managers are eyeing the deep snowpack in the mountains and planning for the potential of a sudden spring heatwave to melt much of it at once. That would send reservoirs into flood control operations, dumping precious water storage to make room for the runoff from rivers and streams.

“It's just a year where it's another tale of extremes,” said Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth, during a presentation to the State Board of Food and Agriculture on Tuesday. “We are really in a time of flux.”

Erratic climate swings like this are leading to less certainty in how farmers will fair in the coming irrigation season.

“The department is very much preparing for springtime flooding conditions in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Nemeth. “We're very focused on groundwater recharge.”

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) will soon produce its first in a series of runoff forecasts, which are “really important” for managing the state’s vast water storage system and help to define the type of water year farmers are facing. While many reservoirs are approaching or exceeding average levels for this time of year, board member Bryce Lundberg cautioned that average was celebrated for his high school grades, but “I'm not sure what we should strive for in our reservoirs is average.”

Nemeth noted that the notion of average has been shifting with climate change as well, since the snowpack often peaks and begins to melt well before DWR’s final April 1 measurement for the season. She called it premature to determine how the season will play out—despite the nine atmospheric rivers that have pummeled the state.

Comprehensive aerial surveys are observing the snow water content throughout the mountains, with the measurements dialing down to an inch.

So far it is clear the state will not experience a repeat of 2021, when a deep snowpack layered on top of dry soils, leading the environment to soak up far more water than anticipated and to nearly a million acre-feet of anticipated runoff failing to materialize in reservoirs.

While southern Sierra reservoirs are more than 250% of average for this date, the northern end of the state is generally drier.

Bryce LundbergBryce Lundberg, vice president Lundberg Family Farms“What we're really paying attention to is what's happening in Trinity (Lake), which is not recovering,” said Nemeth. “It's tracking well below where we were in 2014 and 2015 [during the last drought] on that system.”

Trinity operates in tandem with Lake Shasta, which is the state’s largest reservoir and still below average, creating a complex situation for storage and supplies, she explained.

To take advantage of the anticipated flooding from snowmelt, the administration is planning to issue all temporary permits for groundwater recharge projects by April.

“It's very clear from a hydrologic perspective—in terms of snowpack and reservoir storage—we are out of drought conditions,” she said. “Where we're not out of drought conditions is our groundwater basins.”

Nemeth also warned that the Colorado River watershed has had “some pretty good storms, but nowhere near the magnitude of what's been happening in California,” meaning conservation will be critical as the crisis over water cutbacks escalates. DWR plans to move more water along conveyance canals into Southern California, where reservoirs continue to be depleted.

In response to frustration over pumping restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta last month, Nemeth argued that the endangered species regulations did not inhibit the state’s ability to deliver water, and pumps operated at or near capacity for several weeks. Yet the extreme weather event demonstrated the limitations on infrastructure to move water quickly for recharge. Nemeth pointed out that the administration’s proposed Delta tunnel project would have delivered an additional 200,000 acre-feet of water last month. Subsidence has also limited the amount of water that can pass through the California Aqueduct, making it critical for balancing groundwater pumping to prevent further sinking of the land, she explained.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross shared the challenges she has heard from irrigation districts in having to decide in July whether to invest in a recharge permit for the following year. Erik Ekdahl, a deputy director at the State Water Resources Control Board, later stressed that districts must make that upfront investment in the years ahead of a wet winter. That entails engineering technical studies to determine the water availability threshold when capturing flood flows.

“What we're seeing a little bit this year is reluctance because of cost,” said Ekdahl. “It is expensive to do this. There's the actual fee itself and then the associated costs of hiring a consultant.”

Nemeth recently visited Fresno to discuss with local water managers the complexity of balancing various water rights alongside permitting and accounting processes for recharge projects.

“Everyone around that table understood that if you have a contract with [the U.S. Bureau of] Reclamation, then there's a certain path that you can take. If you're a landowner in a white area that's not getting surface water, you have a different path to take,” she said. “One of our big challenges has been sorting through all of that.”

Board president Don Cameron agreed with Ross that “it's a very complicated system to get a floodwater permit,” since on-farm flood-managed recharge is not recognized as a beneficial use.

She saw it as important to track the amount of groundwater going into basins, particularly in relation to implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

“We do need to be gravitating towards something that is more organized and something that we can measure,” she said. “That is actually going to really help all these groundwater basins.”

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The Sacramento Valley, with its shallow water table, has not experienced the level of groundwater overdraft that has hindered the San Joaquin Valley. But Lundberg feared a return of the extensive land fallowing last year following drastic and unprecedented cuts in water allocations to those farmers. Nemeth wanted to avoid such deep reductions, since they were immensely disruptive to farmers as well as local communities and the waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway that depends on flooded rice fields. To do so, DWR is considering maintaining more carryover storage in reservoirs to support a higher level of allocations for agriculture.

“That was a real wakeup call,” she said. “There isn't a desire to repeat the intensity of that kind of a cut.”

She noted that Reclamation plans to announce its initial water allocations for the Central Valley Project on Feb. 20 and DWR will revise its water allocation for the State Water Project at the same time. With that in mind, she warned the water transfer market may be limited this year, since the state has not modernized its infrastructure enough to take advantage of a robust market in a wet year.

Despite state budget cuts, the administration is adding more funding for the Save Our Water campaign to educate Californians on conserving urban water use.

“In terms of educating on the importance of agriculture, one of the things we miss in California is how much water we actually import from other states and other countries in the food products that we buy,” said Nemeth, in describing her frustrations over media reports of farmers exporting water.

She viewed it as critical to articulate that message particularly in the greater Los Angeles region.

“We're very willing to be part of any partnerships that can help explain that in more detail and really get people better educated on that reality,” she added.

Board member Glenda Humiston, who is vice president of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, explained that the amount of water needed for manufacturing electronics imported to the state “probably makes us a huge net water importer.”

“That messaging has to start being screamed from the rooftops,” said Humiston.

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