Storm deluge stirs hope for water supply
A paddle boarder traverses swollen Lake Mendocino as flood waters submerge a parking lot. Storms caused state officials to begin water releases from the lake's Coyote Dam. In 2021, with the lake at critically low levels, officials began curtailing water deliveries in the Russian River watershed
By Christine Souza
California farmers are encouraged by the series of atmospheric river storms that brought near-record rain and snow, filling depleted reservoirs and bolstering the snowpack.
Frost Pauli, vineyard manager for Pauli Ranch in Potter Valley in Mendocino County, said he feels optimistic after three intense years of drought. He said the winter storms “have been excellent for our water supply.”
“Our water storage situation is 180 degrees from where we were at the end of November,” Pauli said. “We’re looking pretty good. For our farmers here, everyone’s optimistic about this season. We should have ample water for this year.”
Farmers with water rights along the Russian River in Mendocino and Sonoma counties have been subject to water diversion curtailments since 2021, after the California State Water Resources Control Board adopted actions spurred by a drought emergency declaration by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Other water supply cuts were mandated for watersheds including the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the Scott River and Shasta River watershed.
As of Jan. 23, Lake Mendocino held 67% of its capacity and 124% of its historical average, according to Department of Water Resources data. Lake Sonoma stood at 62% of capacity and 105% of average for the date. To make room for more water from any upcoming storms, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lake Mendocino, last week began releasing water from the lake for the first time in nearly four years.
“There’s really no reason, aside from a man-made scenario, why we shouldn’t have anything but a normal water year. Lake Pillsbury is full, Lake Mendocino is full and Lake Sonoma is coming up,” Pauli said.
California Farm Bureau Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said he is cautiously hopeful that California water curtailment orders may be rolled back, thanks to the storms.
“We’re optimistic about the curtailments coming off this year in a lot of places, and we’re optimistic about better deliveries from the state and federal water projects,” Scheuring said. “That’s what we’re hoping, but there’s still another shoe to drop as far as the rest of the rain year.”
In the Sacramento Valley, David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, said growers are “really encouraged” as reservoirs fill and snowpack builds.
“Things are just really pointing positive on the water supply. Everybody is watching inflow into the reservoirs, and the snowpack is good, so that’s encouraging,” Guy said.
Water cutbacks to the Sacramento Valley in 2022 led to lost agricultural income and impacted rural communities, Guy said. Rice farmers planted about 250,000 acres of rice last year, which is about half of the acres planted in an average year, according to the California Rice Commission.
State water managers said at a press conference last week that California needs more storms to be in a better position after three years of drought.
State Climatologist Michael Anderson, with the Department of Water Resources, said he expects dry weather to continue. He added that large reservoirs “still have a long way to go before they get back to average operating conditions.”
Lake Oroville, the State Water Project’s largest reservoir, reached 61% of its capacity on Monday. That was 109% of its historic average.
“At this point, it is all dependent upon what Mother Nature has in store for us for the remainder of the winter…that will inform where we’ll be,” Molly White, DWR water operations manager, said last week. “Total statewide (reservoir) storage is at 91% of historical average, so (we’re) certainly upticking towards more average conditions across the state.”
Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in the federal Central Valley Project, stood at 54% of capacity and 86% of its historic average. San Luis Reservoir stood at 52% of capacity and73% of its historic average. White said State Water Project supplies in San Luis are at about half of capacity.
Water managers said the place to watch is the Colorado River Basin, which may experience continued water shortages. The Colorado Rocky snowpack is at 133% of normal for this time of year.
“Most of the storms have not hit the Colorado like they have in the Sierras,” said Imperial County farmer Ronnie Leimgruber. “Snowfall in the Colorado region is in better shape than normal for this time of year, but not significantly.”
Imperial Irrigation District has senior water rights to the river, but Leimgruber said farmers fear federal officials are “going to come after agricultural water” to make up shortages due to anticipated supply cuts for junior water rights holders, such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
The Colorado River system, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, supplies drinking water and irrigation to 40 million people across the upper-basin states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, and the lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Water is also shared with Mexico. The federal government has told seven states to develop a plan by Jan. 31 to reduce their water use by 30%, or 4 million acre-feet to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Imperial County farmer Larry Cox said Reclamation is working on a voluntary program that could pay senior agricultural water users for conserved water.
“They haven’t come out with a dollar amount, but if you expect us to voluntarily give up water in a paid program, we need to work on the numbers,” Cox said. “We recognize the seriousness of the problem, and we’re willing to help solve the problem. But it’s got to be at terms that work for senior water right holders.”
Storms served notice that California remains limited in its ability to capture water for future needs.
“It reminds you how valuable Sites Reservoir would be,” Guy said. “We’re in a strange dynamic where we’re seeing flood flows, and we’re still kind of in a drought. It a reminder that it would be nice to have Sites.”
In 2014, as part of the $7.5 billion Proposition 1 water bond, voters approved $2.7 billion for water storage projects, such as the Sites facility planned for the Sacramento Valley between Glenn and Colusa counties. Guy said the off-stream reservoir and flood-control project “is going to take some leadership from the administration to help move that forward.”
The Sites Reservoir Authority has said it hopes to begin construction in 2024 and finish by 2030.
“Flooding certainly highlights the need to upgrade our flood infrastructure, which in many ways is one and the same as our water-supply infrastructure,” Scheuring said. “Storage can get us through multiple dry years, and we just don’t have enough of it in place.”
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)