California losing its water

Water: Supplies come ‘down to the wire’ in much of state
By Kate Campbell
California Farm Bureau

Farmers say this year’s agricultural water supply has been squeezed dry—wells are going empty, major reservoirs are at a fraction of historic storage levels for this time of year and the U.S. Drought Monitor shows California is in a severe to extreme drought.

No California growing region has been spared the drought’s effects.

On the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, growers have had to contend with a 20 percent water allocation from the federal Central Valley Project, while farmers on the east side of the valley have been coping with allocations of class 1 water totaling as little as an acre-foot of water for the entire growing season.

Madera County farmer Rick Cosyns said farmers have had no choice but to rely on groundwater, and now the region’s underground supply is challenged, with older and shallower wells being the first to be affected. The Madera Irrigation District also provides farm water supplies delivered through the CVP Friant Unit.

“Our water prices have been steadily going up as supplies have become more uncertain,” said Cosyns, who is a Madera Irrigation District director. “We started deliveries June 3 and expect we’ll be able to provide supplies through August, but we’ve had to reduce the volume in the system because of the lack of water. We’ve had to ask some farmers to stop their scheduled irrigations so other farmers could take delivery.”

Unlike reservoirs in the rest of the state, which have storage levels at about 35 percent to 75 percent of historic averages, the reservoirs providing water supplies to east-side water districts currently stand above average for seasonal storage. But Cosyns said the levels reflect the need for water to revive salmon in the San Joaquin River.

In the Tulelake area near the Oregon border, farm water supplies are “coming right down to the wire,” said Klamath Water Users Association executive director Greg Addington. “Essentially, we had a water allocation that was quite a bit less than what farmers need. We’re 25 percent to 35 percent short of what we need.”

Klamath Basin farmers have conserved water to try to close the supply gap and have resorted to pumping groundwater as their only temporary safety valve to get through the tough times, he said.

“Well levels are dropping,” he said. “We’re seeing a 10-foot to 20-foot drawdown. We’ve got a little bit of our surface water allocation left, but it’s coming down to inches.”

Harvests of mint, garlic, wheat and barley are going on now, with potato and onion harvests to come in October.

“We’ve got to make sure we manage what we’ve got left so we get those crops out of the ground,” Addington said. “This is one of the most challenging water management years we’ve ever had, trying to get everybody through to harvest. It would be a disaster to run out at this time of year and we’re not going to let that happen.”

In the Sacramento Valley, farmers also report irrigation supplies running short.

“The Orland Artois Water District is in the process of buying additional water,” said Glenn County tree crop farmer Mike Vereschagin. “We anticipate using all the water we have from our allocation and will be cutting it pretty close, and with the purchase of additional water, we’ll have a little insurance policy for our growers.”

Based on historical usage, Vereschagin said the district will run out at the end of the water year at the end of February, leaving farmers potentially vulnerable if they need water for frost control in early spring.

“Everybody is practicing strict water conservation with microsprinklers and drip irrigation, but with permanent crops, the demand is always there. It’s not like we can fallow land planted to trees and vines,” he said. “Most people are quite concerned about the water supply situation next year. Even if we have normal rainfall, most people are of the opinion we won’t catch up and have a normal water supply. We just don’t have the carryover in the state’s reservoirs.”

With only about 3.5 inches of rainfall this water year—when 15 inches is average—farmers in San Luis Obispo County are struggling to get through this growing season with limited surface water supplies. In the Paso Robles growing region, farmers are working to organize a special district to better manage groundwater supplies.

San Luis Obispo winegrape grower Dana Merrill said the region faces severe drought and “we’ll be in front of the board of supervisors this week where some are calling for new groundwater regulations.”

Without surface water supplies, the region is entirely dependent on groundwater, Merrill said, but most vineyards in the county still have water.

“Things are a mess at the moment,” he said. “If we get a drought next year or beyond that, I imagine deeper wells will be impacted. I don’t even want to think about that right now. ”

Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources, said the current situation confirms the need for additional water storage in California.

“It seems self-evident that new water storage options are a critical necessity from a water management standpoint, including not only management of surface supply systems to capture excess flows when they are available, but also groundwater recharge functions. This would collectively increase water storage capacity for public, agricultural and environmental needs. Additional stored water and flood capacity is simply a must if we are going to meet the state’s water and flood management needs into the 21st century,” Merkley said.

In San Diego County, supplies have been available, “but I’m mortified by the price,” said ornamental nursery grower Eric Anderson. “It works out to more than $2,000 an acre-foot for water. But, at that price, I’m not sure how much demand there is for water because it’s hard to grow crops profitable enough to justify it.”

As with other farmers around the state, Anderson expressed concern about what happens if the coming winter also turns out to be dry, noting that now “there are worries about cutbacks on the Colorado River because of drought.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classifies current ocean conditions as El Niño-Southern Oscillation “neutral,” suggesting dry conditions will persist through December, which doesn’t bode well for rebuilding water supplies in coming months. But Anderson said he’s confident of a wet winter ahead.

“I can tell because of the pine trees. They’ve been putting out cones like crazy. Usually when there’s a big cone event in Southern California, it’s going to rain,” he said.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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