Water worries intensify as dry year turns drier


Issue Date: May 8, 2013
By Kate Campbell

It's going to be a long, hot summer—that's a given in California's interior valleys. What isn't known, farmers say, is how well billions of dollars' worth of food crops will weather the heat amid severe irrigation water cutbacks.

The season's final survey of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, conducted last week, found only 17 percent of average levels.

At the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported its water transfer pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were operating at about 20 percent of capacity, due to the dry conditions combined with restrictions intended to protect fish species. San Luis Reservoir, a summer supply pool for both the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, stood only about 50 percent full.

Water supply allocations for CVP contractors, currently at 20 percent of contract amount for agricultural customers south of the delta, could be reduced further, officials said. The final water allocation will be announced in coming weeks, after officials finish supply calculations based on the snowpack data. The State Water Project will deliver only 35 percent of contract amount.

For some San Joaquin Valley farmers, the impact of water releases required for San Joaquin River restoration add to supply uncertainty, said Ryan Jacobsen, Fresno County Farm Bureau executive director.

"There will be 175,000 acre-feet of water sent down the San Joaquin River this year for restoration," said Jacobsen, who also is president of the Fresno Irrigation District board of directors. "Water from storage has never been used this way before in a drought situation."

Because of dry conditions, he said the district plans to deliver irrigation water supplies for only two to three months this summer, instead of the more usual four to six months of the growing season.

"We'll try to time deliveries to help farmers during the hottest part of the summer, in an effort to help them with their crops," Jacobsen said.

The district board will also meet in coming days to decide how much water to withdraw from two underground water banks.

"It's important to note, however, that water banks are not the complete solution to water shortages," Jacobsen said. "They're one of many important supply management tools. And it's not about water banks versus surface storage. We need both as we make plans for water supply reliability. Supply options need to work together for flexibility."

In Tulare County, citrus farmer Keith Watkins said growers in his area have no choice except to rely on groundwater.

"In a year like this, there are basically very few options," said Watkins, who is past president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau and currently chairs its water committee. "But it's the future that worries me. We'll probably squeeze by this year. Another dry year on top of this one, and I don't know how we'll make it."

Watkins, who farms in 11 different irrigation districts, said he has installed advanced irrigation systems and relies on both ground moisture sensors and visual inspections to schedule crop irrigation. He said when it comes to water conservation, he's not sure how much more he can do.

"As far as I'm concerned, the future is all about adding storage," Watkins said. "Demands for more water supply continue to grow, and we need to add new reservoirs and increase underground storage."

In San Bernardino County, water supplies come primarily from Big Bear Lake, built at the turn of the 20th century by citrus farmers and operated today by a shareholder company.

"Unlike those in the San Joaquin Valley, we're primarily supplied by a private water company," said Chuck Hills, a citrus farmer from Redlands and a San Bernardino County Farm Bureau director. "Our water is cheaper than state and federal project water and we have other alternatives, such as the Santa Ana River and well water."

At this point, he said, those supplies appear not to be at risk. But Hills said water contractors who depend on restricted delta deliveries might turn their attention to those supplies in the future.

"Water is becoming more valuable than gold," he said. "We know that people would like to tap into our supply and we don't want to have to go to Sacramento and fight about it all day."

The low snowpack measurements last week underscore the importance of a flexible water delivery system, said Terry Erlewine, State Water Contractors general manager. He noted that during intense storms last November and December, fishery agency restrictions prevented hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water from being pumped into storage in San Luis Reservoir.

"We lost an important opportunity earlier this year when water was abundant but pumping was restricted," he said. "We, unfortunately, haven't made up those losses in the past few months."

That is the kind of conflict state and federal agencies want to resolve through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, state Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said after the final snowpack readings were announced. The plan is a 50-year blueprint for improving the delta ecosystem, which Cowin called essential to obtaining permits and building a new delta water conveyance system.

"This dry year underscores two facts," California Farm Bureau Federation natural resources counsel Chris Scheuring said. "California needs more water storage to help the state deal with uncertain weather patterns, and it needs an improved water system that benefits all California agriculture."

As the state's population grows and its water system becomes increasingly unreliable, the Public Policy Institute of California said in a report on the delta last week that there's no simple fix for the estuary's ecosystem.

Instead it recommended "comprehensive, science-based management" of the multiple stresses on the delta ecosystem, plus improvements to the fragmented system of oversight that now involves dozens of federal, state and local agencies. The report said that makes delivering dwindling water supplies to those who need it more uncertain and contentious.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.