Despite rains, water outlook remains grim

Issue Date: November 5, 2008
Kate Campbell

Lance Walheim of California Citrus Specialties in Exeter said early-November rain came at the perfect time to help size and color his crop of Meyer lemons, but "more rain would be better."

After months without rain, the season's first significant storms came ashore just as officials warned of rapidly dwindling water supplies and severe shortages next year. State water experts said that rationing is a growing likelihood for 2009, despite the rain that fell over much of the state last week.

The comments came along with an early announcement of a preliminary 15 percent water delivery allocation from the State Water Project, the second lowest allocation in project history. The early warning is intended to provide water districts, cities and farms time for advance conservation planning and crop decisions.

"This initial allocation level has implications for water users at all levels, not just agriculture," said Chris Scheuring, managing counsel of the California Farm Bureau Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division. "A substantial portion of the irrigated land we depend on for crops will be fallowed. This isn't just an issue for agriculture, it's a food-supply issue for everyone."

The State Water Project supplies water to more than 25 million California residents and more than 750,000 acres of farmland. Officials said SWP contractors requested nearly 4.2 million acre-feet of water for the 2009 calendar year, the maximum contractual amount allowed.

Actual delivery amounts can increase from the initial allocation, depending on the year's hydrologic and water supply conditions. The project almost never delivers 100 percent of requests, even in wet years, according to state records. But 50 percent to 60 percent is a typical allocation for an average year, and 15 percent would represent a sharp reduction.

"The state's reservoirs are about half the level they should be for this time of year," said Lester Snow, state Department of Water Resources director. "They're at the lowest levels since 1977. Statewide, carryover levels at all reservoirs are at their lowest in 14 years."

On top of that, Snow cited severe ecological problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which have resulted in restrictions on SWP operations as well as those of the federal Central Valley Project, reducing the amount of water pumped from the delta for storage.

Should the current water year also turn out to be dry, Snow said, "We have the potential to have the worst drought in California's history. That makes us very nervous going into next year. "

Occasionally heavy rain reached much of California this past weekend, and farmers say they hope it signifies the first of many storms that the state needs to reduce its water deficit.

At California Citrus Specialties in Exeter, Vice President Lance Walheim welcomed the rain.

"The rain will help size and color the fruit faster," Walheim said. "More rain would even be better."

Department of Water Resources meteorologist Elissa Lynn said precipitation so far this water year, which began Oct. 1, has done little to improve the state's long-term water outlook.

The State Water Project has historically announced initial water allocations at the end of November, complying with the long-term water supply contracts requiring a Dec. 1 announcement to participating water districts. Because 2009 is expected to be another dry year, the project came out early with its preliminary estimate to help local water agencies plan.

"This cut in (the State Water Project) allocation means that the critical water supply picture continues in Kern County and throughout the state," said Jim Beck, Kern County Water Agency general manager.

He said Kern County this year dipped into "a large portion" of the water assets it has developed to deal with dry-year shortages, and still saw 20,000 acres of farmland fallowed.

"Next year," he said, "we expect our storage will be taxed and we will begin to be very limited in our ability to offset all of the drought's impacts. We expect that next year more than 90,000 acres in Kern County will be impacted by the water shortage. That will include 50,000 acres fallowed and 40,000 acres of crops that will be under-irrigated, which means those acres will have much lower yields."

He said Kern County water demand has changed since the severe drought of the late 1970s.

"Water demand has significantly increased in urban areas," Beck said. "But, in agricultural counties like Kern, we've seen a switch in cropping patterns from annual crops—that are easier to fallow—to permanent plantings like trees and vines."

Stressing that it's difficult to fallow permanent crops without causing irreparable economic damage, Beck said the agency is working with water interests throughout the state to alleviate not just the immediate water shortage, but also long-term water supply issues.

"Our growers are implementing additional water conservation measures to layer on top of their already outstanding record of water conservation," he said.

Beck said the water shortage also brings "the significant risk of job loss."

"That's what happens when you don't have water to grow crops. Folks will lose their jobs and have to deal with the reality that there's no work," he said. "That will affect many of the valley's cities."

"We're looking at a significant problem in meeting agricultural water needs," Farm Bureau's Schuering said. "But this is true for water users throughout the state. The short-term picture is very difficult and the long-term view isn't any better."

Scheuring noted that farmers generally use water very efficiently, meaning when water is short they often have little choice but to reduce production.

For some time, Farm Bureau has called for more surface water storage and improved water conveyance, he said.

"The magnitude of this problem is so enormous, with the state moving toward 50 million residents in coming decades, the solution can't fail to include plans for more surface water storage," Scheuring stressed. "Conveyance has got to be linked to increased supply. We've got to bring more acre-feet of water to the table."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Reporter Lisa Lieberman contributed to this story.)

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