Dry January worsens state's water shortages

Issue Date: January 28, 2009
Kate Campbell

A deepening drought and ever-tightening restrictions on water movement leave many California farmers and ranchers facing the prospect of severe—perhaps unprecedented—water shortages in 2009.

Though they welcomed last week's rain and snow, water officials say the series of gentle storms did little to improve the state's severe drought conditions and increase overall water supplies. They say time is running out on the state's traditional rainy period and even a late season deluge likely won't produce a happy ending for this year's water story.

Currently water stored in reservoirs statewide stands at 35 percent of capacity. Only two other years have seen lower reservoir levels at this time of year—1977 and 1992, both extreme drought years.

In a prepared statement on the water outlook for 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project, said that water deliveries will be "very challenging this year" and allocations will be "relatively low." An official water delivery forecast is expected about Feb. 20.

Westlands Water District officials are warning the 600 family farmers it serves in the western San Joaquin Valley to brace for zero surface water deliveries this year. It appears that at least half the 600,000 acres of irrigated fields in the district will be fallowed.

CVP representatives say the system has issued a "zero" allocation only once in its history. A preliminary zero surface water delivery allocation was announced in February 1992, but unusually heavy storms that March ultimately prompted an increase to 25 percent of contract.

At a meeting of the State Board of Food and Agriculture last week, California Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow said the current State Water Project allocation to districts it serves is 15 percent of contract amount but, he warned, "We're having trouble holding on to that allocation level."

A new snow survey to be conducted Jan. 29 will help officials in their preliminary estimates of water deliveries. Last week the overall Sierra snowpack stood at only about 57 percent of average and weather forecasters don't see any storms sweeping in from the Pacific in the coming week.

Complicating the situation are court rulings to protect threatened and endangered species that curtail pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for storage and distribution. In all, some 3 million acres of farmland south of the delta rely on water from state and federal projects

Farmers say even if it rains, it's too late to change crop plans. In addition, banks are increasingly cautious about making production loans without better assurances of reliable water supplies to finish crops and in some areas have cut off farmers' lines of credit.

"This is very serious," said Kings County farmer Bob Wilson, who relies on water from Westlands to support his crops in Fresno and Kings counties. "A lot of the acres we farm have been fallowed and there'll be no cotton planted this year."

Throughout the San Joaquin Valley and the state's other growing regions, farmers say they plan to reduce planted acres, lighten tree crops and use what little water may be available to keep permanent crops alive. That water will come primarily from groundwater sources, though some farmers may participate in expensive and uncertain farmer-to-farmer transfers or may have possible carryover water from a year ago.

"We've been preparing for this water cutback given the lack of rainfall, and have cropped our farms very conservatively," Wilson said. "When we drew up our water plan for this year, we were counting on carryover water we'd banked in 2008, but now there are concerns about the availability of that water, too."

Westlands spokesperson Sarah Woolf said the water supply stored in San Luis Reservoir (20 percent of capacity) has been "over-allocated." How the estimated 100,000 acre-feet of water that farmers saved and carried over from 2008 will be allocated hasn't yet been determined.

At the water delivery levels currently being discussed, experts say 2009 crop losses could easily exceed the nearly $309 million in losses suffered in 2008.

Using a new statistical model, researchers at the University of California, Davis, estimate that an 85 percent cut in CVP and SWP water deliveries from the delta could result in more than 40,000 lost jobs and a $1.15 billion income loss in the Central Valley. Farm revenue losses alone would total more than $800 million. Those losses would occur despite a 50 percent increase in groundwater pumping. (See related story.)

Farmers and ranchers in other parts of the state also will be in dire straits if dry weather continues.

On the North Coast, farmers who rely on water from the Russian River are "envisioning a very low supply," said David Coball, vineyard director for Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County.

He said Lake Mendocino is extremely low. Only once before, in 1977, did the reservoir level drop below its current 27 percent of capacity.

"To cope with shortages, we're looking at our pruning methods to reduce crop load and removing cover crops so the vines don't have to compete for moisture," he said.

On the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, ranchers say recent light rains will "green up" the foothills, but the soil column is depleted of moisture.

Just like farmers in the rest of the state, those in the northern Sacramento Valley are resorting to groundwater pumping, but now there are sporadic reports of wells going dry.

"It's getting severe here," said Glenn County cattle rancher Larry Massa. "We're in the third dry year and our groundwater tables are low. We've been watering cattle near our home, using the same wells we use for the house, but we've been losing suction. We have to wait hours for the water to build back up—and this is January. This has never happened before with the wells on our home ranch."

Although last week's rains will increase forage for livestock, ranchers say the condition of the state's rangeland is precarious. Last year, poor range conditions resulted in nearly $120 million in losses to ranchers.

Ranchers say they can feed hay, which is expensive, sell their breeding cows or move the cattle out of state. Trouble is, many other nearby states are also in drought conditions so there are fewer options for moving cattle and sale prices for cattle are dropping quickly as more animals are being sold.

Lack of stored water is prompting rationing in parts of Southern California. Warm weather has forced San Diego County farmers to begin irrigating early. Ventura County strawberry farmers have been warned there may not be enough water to go around this season.

San Bernardino County nursery operator Kathye Rietkerk said her water provider is calling for a 26.5 percent price increase in July, and additional, smaller increases the following two years. The nursery buys water at municipal rates that Rietkerk estimates as the equivalent of more than $700 an acre-foot.

"We've already invested in drip irrigation and water conservation technology. Incentive programs for reductions in water use don't help us because we're already using as little water as possible," she said. "I want to know how those of us that already have cut back on water usage will be treated as prices increase and supply is reduced. We want to see good stewardship recognized."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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