Bleak water year ending, with hope for future elusive

By Christine Souza

Nearing the end of the water year on Sept. 30, California farmers and water officials are eager to turn the page to begin the next opportunity for the state to accrue snowpack and precipitation.

However, with a La Niña atmospheric phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, which generally signals drier, warmer conditions, water officials say they are preparing for a fourth dry year next year.

“We are currently in a La Niña condition, and that is forecasted to persist through December with a high level of certainty and about a 50% to 60% probability through January into the spring months,” said Jeanine Jones, California Department of Water Resources interstate resources manager. “As a prudent measure, we’re actively preparing for a fourth dry year.”

Much needed rainfall briefly quenched parts of the state a few days last week, bringing a quick shot of relief to the drought-parched state. Three years of drought scaled back the snowpack, the source of a third of California’s total water supply. Reservoir supplies have also “been lagging,” Jones said.

North of Redding, Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in the federal Central Valley Project, stands at about 59% of historic average storage. Lake Oroville in Butte County, the principal State Water Project reservoir, has about 64% of average, while San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-delta holding facility for both the SWP and CVP, remains at 67%.

The drought has forced farmers and ranchers to forgo planting crops, reduce livestock herds and stretch every drop of water to remain in business.

Due to limited water, farmers in Marin and Sonoma counties have paid to truck water to farms and dairies for livestock.

Marin County organic dairy farmer Brian Dolcini said he has about 8,000 gallons of water delivered daily to his operation from a nearby reservoir. This supplies livestock with drinking water and is used to wash down the dairy barn.

“The whole year has just been one thing after the other,” said Dolcini, president of the Marin County Farm Bureau. “We would’ve been fine as far as water, except our dam (on the dairy) failed. A big chunk of the levee blew out on Jan. 1, so we released most of the water to take the pressure off. Otherwise, we would’ve had two years’ worth of water sitting there.”

He added, “We made it till right after the Fourth of July, and we’ve been hauling water in ever since.”

Elsewhere in his area, he said, several “cornerstone” dairies have shut their doors.

“We’re all hanging on by a thread,” Dolcini said. “We’re faced with a brutal option: To stay in business, you either have to go to the bank and borrow money at a high interest rate or you dig into your personal bank account.”

Processors are paying producers good prices for milk, Dolcini said, adding that skyrocketing costs of hay, fuel and transportation are adding to challenges. “The outside expenses are just brutal, and who would ever believe that you would see $495 (per ton of) alfalfa,” he said.

He and others are “scrambling around” to find feed. He is purchasing almond hulls, which he said he hasn’t done in 30 years.

Klamath Basin farmers who rely on CVP water from Upper Klamath Lake say the last few years of drought and water cutbacks have been devastating.

Siskiyou County farmer and rancher Ben DuVal of Tulelake said he made plans based on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation providing irrigation supplies according to a certain lake level. But he said, “then the bureau changed rules and we weren’t able to finish out the season.

“We did get about 15% of our usual supply, which is a whole lot better than zero, but we had a lot of fallowed ground,” DuVal said.

Those affected, DuVal said, could not take advantage of this year’s high commodity prices for hay and feed crops.

“It would have meant a lot to farmers who have endured so much over the past few drought years to have a profitable year,” he said. “Instead, we were just forced to fallow a lot of ground.”

CVP water contractor Westlands Water District received a zero water allocation this year. Despite participating in programs to acquire water through groundwater substitution and reservoir releases from willing sellers, Westlands farmers had to “fallow over 200,000 acres of land, rip out trees and leave crops unharvested in the fields due to insufficient water supplies,” said district spokeswoman Elizabeth Jonasson.

Farmers in Southern California, with senior water rights on the Colorado River, expressed concern that emergency water delivery cuts for more junior water users did not go far enough to keep the supply sustainable. While cuts were not directed at Imperial Valley agriculture, which has significantly curbed its water use, farmers say they could lose supplies if an accord on 2023 diversions isn’t reached for multiple states and agencies that rely on the river.

“Senior water-rights holders are being sacrificed on behalf of the junior right holders,” said Imperial County farmer Mark McBroom, chairman of the Imperial Irrigation District’s Agricultural Water Advisory Committee. “The federal government and the bureau have forgotten the concept of the Law of the River (that regulates the river’s use among seven basin states and Mexico).”

McBroom added that every acre-foot of water that comes into the Imperial Valley “creates over $2,000 worth of revenue.” Without it, “that’s our economy, and that’s people losing jobs,” he said.

McBroom said a better water year depends on snowfall in the Rocky Mountains. Imperial Valley farmers are also looking to find ways to grow crops more efficiently and with less water.

Klamath Basin’s DuVal said, “It is really hard to keep a positive mindset, but we’re problem solvers, and we’ll do the best we can to try and figure out how to maximize the allocation that we get.” He added, “If there’s a bright side, it’s that we’ve become incredibly creative on how to maximize every drop of water and figure out solutions.”

(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