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Farmers make crop plans amid dry early winter

Issue Date: January 6, 2021
By Christine Souza
Jeremy Hill and Sean de Guzman of the California Department of Water Resources conduct the season’s first manual snow survey at Phillips Station in El Dorado County.
Photo/Kelly Grow, California Department of Water Resources

With the winter off to a dry start, farmers say they're making contingency plans for tight water supplies, while retaining hope that storms in the first three months of 2021 will bolster the Sierra Nevada snowpack and reservoir storage.

When the California Department of Water Resources conducted its first manual snow survey last week, DWR officials found snow at 93% of average at an El Dorado County location—but elsewhere, the Sierra snowpack lags much further below normal. Statewide, the snowpack stands at about half of average for the date.

In addition, carryover supplies in key reservoirs have dropped.

Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in the federal Central Valley Project, stood at 72% of average as of Monday; Lake Oroville, the largest State Water Project reservoir, held 57% of its average storage and San Luis Reservoir, used jointly by the CVP and SWP, had 69% of average storage.

"We still have several months left to bring us up to average, but we should prepare now for extended dry conditions," DWR Director Karla Nemeth said.

In the Central Valley, farmers who buy irrigation water through the two projects have been watching the situation closely.

To prepare for the growing season, Kern County farm manager Jason Giannelli of Wegis and Young said he remains hopeful. The farm relies on a water district that purchases water from the SWP and another that receives a mix of SWP and CVP supplies.

"The state (SWP) allocation (announced on Dec. 1) is currently 10%, but we're getting some good storms coming in and we had some good storms the last couple of weeks up north, so I'm trying to be optimistic," Giannelli said, adding that he is budgeting water so the farm can be viable and productive.

"We prioritize our crops and try to utilize the water efficiently as we set up our water budget," he said. "We're also utilizing underground drip for alfalfa or corn and are looking at more efficient ways of irrigating, to maximize our water as well as our field production."

In addition, Giannelli said, with the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, farmers realize groundwater pumping will be more restricted, so "we are already applying that to our methods and our program."

Dan Errotabere, who farms permanent and row crops in Riverdale in the Westlands Water District, a CVP contractor, said farmers must plan for various water supply scenarios.

"You have to partition part of the operation to hedge and say, 'Listen, I can plant this block of ground later and if the water isn't there, I'll fallow it if the water just is not in the cards,'" said Errotabere, who chairs the Westlands board.

Anticipating groundwater constraints due to SGMA, he said, the district is recharging the aquifer through deep wells and setting up recharging ponds.

Last year, Westlands received a 20% CVP water allocation—but this year, the allocation is more uncertain. Errotabere said a dry-year allocation could be in the 5% to 10% range, with zero always a possibility.

"We won't get a formal announcement until February, but as you go dry into the year, obviously we're not going to have a higher allocation, but we're just hoping it's not too low," he said. "It's hopeful that with the biological opinion and the coordinated operating agreement between the federal and state, that we won't be as low as we have historically."

Federal biological opinions for management of water to aid protected fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system were updated in 2019, then challenged in court last year by the state of California and environmental groups, which sought a return to previous opinions—a scenario that could reduce water deliveries.

California Farm Water Coalition executive director Mike Wade said moving forward with the updated biological opinions gives water managers greater flexibility and more certainty on what to expect in terms of regulatory actions. A return to the previous opinions, he said, would cause "a serious problem in meeting the ecosystem goals and still being able to deliver enough water to farm effectively in the state."

Wade said maintaining the updated opinions would also lead to progress on voluntary agreements affecting flows for rivers that feed into the delta. The voluntary agreements would serve as an alternative to "unimpaired flows" plans by the State Water Resources Control Board.

A first phase of the water board plan, adopted in 2018, would require water users in San Joaquin River tributaries to leave 30% to 50% of unimpaired flows in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers for fish populations, unless voluntary agreements can be reached and adopted. A second phase proposes similar unimpaired-flow requirements of approximately 55% for the Sacramento River watershed.

Wade said it is possible that the state's lawsuit challenging the updated biological opinions could be settled with the federal government, adding, "then we would be able to move forward on voluntary agreements, which would be a huge step forward."

Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which holds a Sacramento Valley settlement contract under the CVP, said he hopes parties to voluntary agreements will return to the table to have productive conversations.

"We've got to wait for the new administration to get seated, but it sounds like there is a willingness and desire for folks to get back together, so we are hopeful to be able to get together in person and make progress on some of these major issues," Bettner said.

For the federal Klamath Water Project straddling the California-Oregon border, farmer Ben DuVal of Tulelake said he is hopeful 2021 will be a better year. Last year, Klamath farmers were affected after project operators unexpectedly cut already-low allocations in response to concerns about protected fish; the cuts were ultimately restored.

"Things have been so bad here on the Klamath Project, and it doesn't have to be this way," DuVal said. "We use 3% of the water out of the Klamath River and we take that small percentage and do a lot of good with it. We put a lot of people to work and produce a lot of amazing crops.

"People are going to have to eventually realize that all the problems on the Klamath River cannot be blamed solely on the Klamath Project, and that we can move on from some of the issues that we've been dealing with," he said.

(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 when reprinting this item.

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