Water year gets off to wet start; caution remains


Issue Date: November 9, 2016
By Christine Souza

The precipitation that soaked parts of Northern California during October—the first month of the rainfall season—may have slowed harvest for some farmers, but water officials say it represented the second-wettest October on record for the Northern Sierra. Though encouraged by the season's beginning, water watchers caution about projecting an end, or even a lessening, of the state's ongoing drought.

"We're off to a great start, but there is no expectation or belief that this is going to continue," said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources.

He said precipitation through October stood at 393 percent of average on the Northern Sierra Precipitation 8-Station Index. The index samples the region's major watersheds, which produce inflow to some of California's largest reservoirs—the source of much of the state's water supply. Even so, one-fifth of the state, primarily in Southern California, remains in the most severe category of drought, compared to nearly half the state at this time last year.

Data from DWR show the state's largest reservoir, Shasta, holds just more than average, as do Don Pedro Reservoir and Millerton Lake. But many other reservoirs remain below average for the date, despite the wet month, though they hold more water than they did on the same date last year.

"Lake Shasta is doing better at 103 percent of average, but Oroville, the largest reservoir on our network of the State Water Project, is not even three-quarters of the way up to its average for Nov. 1," Carlson said. "We should be a little more than 2 million acre feet. We're down 600,000 acre-feet from average."

Farmers welcomed the October rains, but almond and prune farmer Mike Vereschagin of Orland said it's too early to make predictions about water for 2017.

"This is a great start, but we know that we have a long way to go," Vereschagin said, adding that rains delayed harvest of walnuts and rice for some growers in his area. "So far, the rain has been soaking into the soil quite well, so that leads to some groundwater recharge, which is what we want to see."

Diversified farmer Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Co. near Los Banos said, "It's obviously hard to know what the weather is going to end up doing, but we saw pretty wet conditions in the north this last year and above average at Lake Shasta all throughout the year, but still some pretty tough (water) conditions for folks south of the delta."

Michael said his planting intentions for 2017 at this point include processing tomatoes and an increase in longer-staple cotton.

"We're going to lock in a certain amount of acres through wells and hopefully through some amount of surface water, but then we'll be in a holding pattern on everything else and it's wait and see," Michael said.

As winter temperatures appear to become warmer, Michael said he will try planting garlic, onions and carrots earlier in the year, to avoid the risk of not having enough water for irrigation in the summer.

"We've shifted crop timing to grow some things in the winter, which we don't normally do, but because we're a little bit nervous about not having water for the summer, we're trying to shift to different time periods," he said.

Michael noted that farmers and water districts are investing millions of dollars in drip irrigation and modernization of district infrastructure, to ensure not a drop of water is wasted.

"Farmers continue to plow in a lot of money into investments on a water district level and on our own farms, but it's pretty hard to take those risks when you don't know (about the water supply future)," said Michael, who farms with water mostly from the San Luis Canal Co.

Vereschagin, who serves as president of the Orland-Artois Water District board, said he has invested in additional wells and should have enough capacity for the coming season.

"If I need to purchase water, it should be a minimal amount," Vereschagin said.

Michael said he has friends who farm in many different water districts and have "all different levels of access" to water supplies.

"I don't want to see other family farmers go out of business," Michael said. "I like to engage with folks in other areas to make sure that we try to get on the same page, because at the end of the day, we all are part of this larger California agriculture and we need to try to help each other and work together."

The recent storms produced only a dusting of snow at Echo Summit and along Interstate 80 at Donner Lake. Based on the small snowpack received last winter, the concern going into this year is: Will the state receive enough snow?

"The problem is that we've had a lot of warm weather in the wintertime and not enough precipitation," Carlson said. "We'll just have to wait to see how it pans out."

Last winter provided plenty of reason for caution. The strong El Niño weather pattern led forecasters to predict heavy rainfall in the south, which didn't materialize. Carlson said the state as a whole did receive a fair amount of rainfall last year—100 percent of average—but only 85 percent of average snowpack.

Headed into this winter, forecasters report a La Niña pattern developing, but don't know what that portends for California rain and snow.

The director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, Danny Merkley, said California needs new surface storage to make the state's water infrastructure compatible with new precipitation patterns.

"We now receive our precipitation generally in warmer, flashier storms that don't allow time for precipitation to settle into the soil to recharge groundwater," Merkley said. "Recent years have shown we can't rely on our largest natural reservoir—the Sierra snowpack—the way we once did. With the construction of new water storage, such as Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat, we would be able to capture significant amounts of surface water in excess of what is needed at the time, for flows and other uses."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.