Stored water gives farmers hope for plentiful supplies

Stored water gives farmers hope for plentiful supplies

North of Redding in Shasta County, Lake Shasta is the largest federal reservoir of the Central Valley Project. The reservoir stood at 68% of its capacity and 126% of its historic average on Monday.

Photo/Ken James/California Department of Water Resources

Stored water gives farmers hope for plentiful supplies

By Christine Souza


As California’s weather swings from droughts to floods, farmers say they are planning for either extreme but remain confident knowing the water supply in state reservoirs is well above the historical average for this time of year.

Yolo County farmer Fritz Durst said his crystal ball for the 2024 water year is unclear but added that surface water supplies remain plentiful with more winter weather to come.

“Since the reservoirs are healthy right now, we are predicting—unless it’s just an absolute, no-rain-at-all drought—that we will be getting some of our water,” said Durst, a Sacramento River settlement contractor who farms rice, alfalfa, sunflowers, tomatoes and cereal crops near Knights Landing.

“I don’t know if we’ll get all of it. That remains to be seen, but it doesn’t look as negative as it looked (going into) last year,” he said.

As of Monday, Lake Shasta, the largest federal reservoir in the state’s Central Valley Project, stood at 68% of its capacity and 126% of its historic average.

Lake Oroville, the State Water Project’s largest reservoir, reached 66% of its capacity and 132% of its historic average.

San Luis Reservoir, which holds water for both the SWP and the CVP, is at 57% of capacity and 113% of average.

The abundant surface water stored in reservoirs across the state is the result of an El Niño weather pattern that brought soaking atmospheric river storms and flooding early this year. The wet weather arrived after the state faced a third consecutive year of drought in 2022.

“We’re at above-average reservoir storage this year because of the wet year we had last year,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager at the California Department of Water Resources. “Even if this year turns out to be dry, that will help us with respect to managing next year.

Jones added, “The coming year could be like a water year 2018 or 2020, which were dry years that followed a wet water year and there was decent reservoir storage.”

Since the 2024 water year began on Oct. 1, the state has received little precipitation and snow.

The first moderate precipitation arrived last week, bringing a drop in the bucket of what is needed to carry the state through the year. The low-pressure system was concentrated on the Central Coast and Bay Area, and brought light snow to the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada.

While the storm did not materialize into a soaking atmospheric river, Jones said, “it’s nice we get a little rain to provide some soil moisture.”

She said state water managers pay closer attention to the period from December through January, when the state receives half of its annual precipitation.

“We’re still quite early in the season,” said Jones, adding the forecasted El Niño weather pattern does not guarantee soaking rains for the state.

“California’s precipitation has wide, annual variability. Any year could be a dry year or a wet year. You should be prepared for either extreme,” Jones said.

Farmers are planning for any weather scenario as they develop planting schedules for the coming growing season.

Kings County farmer Ted Sheely, who grows a mix of tree, row and field crops in Lemoore, said he is “always, always” planning for a dry or wet water year.

Sheely farms in the Westlands Water District, which received 100% of its contracted water allotment this year from CVP. It was the first time since 2017 that contractors received 100% water deliveries.

“We actually farmed 100% of our ground this year. We are planning on doing 100% next year, but we’ve got relief valves in there so we can quit growing something,” Sheely said. “We started in September, laying out a crop plan, and it’s changed four or five times, and we’re still changing it.”

Sheely won’t know next season’s initial water allocation figure until February or March.

As a result, he said, “we have places we can cut all along the way” if he needs to reduce water use. He said he has contingency plans for reducing plantings of wheat, tomatoes, onions and cotton.

In Northern California, Durst said, he is using practices such as no-till and growing cover crops to keep water on the fields and promote soil health.

“I’m interseeding cover crops, such as different peas, beans, vetch and mustard, in the furrows of my asparagus,” he said. “It will get taken out in early March, but in the meantime, the cover crops are going to slow down the rainwater, and we’ll retain more of that water instead of having it run off.”

Durst added, “Having a covering on the soil is really important for me, to save that water when we do get it.”

Sheely said farmers subject to local sustainability plans required under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, are interested in boosting groundwater aquifers.

If this water year brings flooding from storms, as occurred last winter and spring, Sheely said he hopes to use stormwater to recharge groundwater supplies.

“This year, we have excess water and are filtering our Westland’s water, treating it with chlorine and injecting it down our wells and building credits for SGMA,” Sheely said. “With SGMA, in years that there is extra water, we’re going to have to shut our wells down, and that is how we get the most recovery of the aquifer.”

Westlands Water District announced last week that it has recharged 200,000 acre-feet of groundwater into district aquifers and set an updated target to recharge 275,000 acre-feet of groundwater by Feb. 29.

In preparation for winter storms and to enhance public safety, state and federal officials have begun conducting water releases from reservoirs to increase storage capacity for incoming water.

“Every year, the state is getting better and better at managing reservoirs based upon forecast conditions, because you don’t want to spill any more water than you have to in the name of flood control, because whatever you spill, you’re going to need for crops the next irrigation season,” said Chris Scheuring, senior counsel for the California Farm Bureau.

“We hope we have another year in which we replace every bit of what we use this year in the reservoirs, and we go into the next year with full reservoirs,” Scheuring added. “We’re always planning ahead for the next drought.”

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted. However, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation