WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2016 - California is starting to claw its way back from its long, deep drought and, what’s more, is preparing better for the next one.
Though downpours flooded some parts of the country in recent weeks, the water supply outlook for much of America’s biggest farming state remains iffy. The state depends on massive snow buildup in the Sierra Nevada mountains plus plentiful rain elsewhere through winter months to feed its reservoirs and aquifers for year-round water supplies. But even after a favorable start to its five-month winter rainy reason, most of its main reservoirs are just a fourth to a third full and at about half of their average levels. Water levels are low, too, in the huge Colorado River reservoirs in Nevada that also help supply Southern California.
“It’s hard to imagine that we’d have enough water replenishment… to fill a four-year hole in one year,” says Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
On the other hand, water in California’s mountain snowpack is running 5 percent to 10 percent above average. “Certainly we are in much better shape that we were a year ago,” he says.
What’s more, there are several factors promising better water availability in California. On the seasonal weather front, the National Weather Service (NWS) and other forecasters say the rain-producing El Niño pattern that arrived this fall will last through the state’s wet season, spurring the odds of reservoir and groundwater replenishment. And the NWS is projecting a rainy January in Southern California.
Richard Howitt, agricultural expert at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, says the drought has probably been hardest on almond, pistachio, citrus and stone-fruit and grape orchards and vineyards of the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California. There, farms have little groundwater and are extremely dependent on river and reservoir allocations, and many farmers got just 10 percent of usual distributions in 2015. As a result, he says, they’ve abandoned annual-crop acres through the drought, using their water for trees, which are highly stressed, and “they’ve been just getting by.”
So, he says, in 2016 farmers across the state’s huge Central Valley need “a really good fill-up of the dams.” Valley farmers idled about 550,000 more crop acres than usual last year because of the drought, he said, and that land will start coming back into production if farmers can get bigger irrigation water allocations this year.
For the longer term, Howitt echoes many Californians: “What we need to do is manage our underground water better. And people are making steps in that direction.”
California voters and state agencies are already moving on several fronts to build and expand water storage projects and plan more efficient use of surface and groundwater. Cities are investing in wastewater recycling. The San Diego region, for example, has built the largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, taking pressure off available water resources. And the Almond Board of California, which notes that growers have already cut water use per almond by a third in the past 20 years, has launched a new initiative to further enhance water management and efficiency in the orchards.
Meanwhile, the California Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) has begun to dole out cash from $7.2 billion in water supply and infrastructure improvement bonds that voters approved a year ago, including $2.7 billion for expanding water storage. One recent allotment is $5 million to help residents on private wells and small water systems who are facing water emergencies. (See other aid for emergency water projects at Drought.CA.Gov
Kranz says farm groups hope the state will aggressively pursue several surface water storage initiatives, especially reservoirs for seasonable water retention, that are proposed for water bond funding. Two big ones are the Sites Reservoir to pump water from the Sacramento River for later return for seasonal downstream use, and the Temperance Flat Reservoir, to similarly draw San Joaquin River for later use.
Rob Vandenheuvel, manager of the California-based Milk Producers Council, says of the proposed water storage projects: “We absolutely need that infrastructure.” Though the drought has hurt forage crops and pastures and has added to dairy farm costs, he says, state and federal water regulation has hit dairy farms there harder than the drought itself.
“Thousands of acre-feet of the Sacramento River’s fresh water are dumped into the Pacific Ocean to protect an endangered species, the Delta smelt, a 3-inch fish… so we are not able to move that water down into the Central Valley… where we grow the nation’s food. That (restriction) is a man-made component of the drought, and it’s significant,” he says. So he wants water storage expanded along with regulations that will allow more efficient use of the water that is stored.
Also, for the first time in the state’s history, the California Legislature last year mandated local water control agencies to establish new frameworks for sustainable, local groundwater management by 2017. Those entities are starting to develop their water use plans now; implementation of the plans and related rules is ordered for 2020.
Last spring, Governor Jerry Brown kicked off his state’s new focus on water use with a statewide mandate for a 25 percent reduction in consumption by this February. The Water Board has been riding shotgun on that executive mandate, assigning reduction targets of 4 to 36 percent for each community. The board estimated in December that statewide water use reductions had already reached 27 percent. Now, it’s proposing a 2016 extension of the order, which features reduced water savings for some cities that are, for example, themselves investing in recycling and other water saving efforts.
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