Snow survey shows state still short on water

Issue Date: January 6, 2010
Kate Campbell

As surveyors drove aluminum tubes into the Sierra snowpack last week, taking their first manual reading of the snow's water content, farmers throughout California looked to the skies for relief from crippling water shortages that have gripped the state.

The first Department of Water Resources snow survey of the winter season showed snow water content stood at 85 percent of average statewide. This time last year, snow water content was 76 percent of the statewide average.

Department of Water Resources snow survey engineers Frank Gehrke and John Dean gauge water content in the Sierra Nevada snowpack near Echo Summit. The survey last week showed just 85 percent of average water content in the snowpack statewide. (Photo courtesy of DWR.)

"Despite some recent storms, the snow survey shows we're still playing catch-up when it comes to our statewide water supplies," said DWR chief deputy director Sue Sims. "Looking at the real possibility of a fourth dry year, we must prepare now, conserve now and act now, so that we have enough water for homes, farms and businesses in 2010 and in the future."

Kern County farmer Fred Starrh Sr., who buys water delivered through the State Water Project, said that he has had to let ground sit idle and has switched to less thirsty crops wherever possible, after three previous years of below-average precipitation combined with environmental regulations to reduce water supplies.

Like everyone in California, he said he hopes for rain and snow this winter, but is resigned to the idea that the state's severe water shortage will continue—even if it turns out to be a wet year.

DWR's early estimate that it will only be able to deliver 5 percent of requested State Water Project water this year to its urban and farm customers in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Southern California is worrisome, he said. The estimate reflects low storage levels in the state's major reservoirs, ongoing drought conditions and environmental restrictions on water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect endangered fish species.

Starrh said that at a recent meeting of the Kern County Water Agency, farmers learned that the most they could expect from contract water allocations from the State Water Project is 20 percent—if the snowpack is normal or above.

DWR estimates that fishery agency restrictions on delta pumping adopted in the past year to protect delta smelt, salmon and other species could reduce annual deliveries of State Water Project water by up to 30 percent.

"Something needs to be done to solve problems in the delta," Starrh said. "If some of the regulations (related to species protection) were lifted, they could deliver as much as 70 percent of our contract amounts. But I'm not optimistic anything will be done."

The federal Central Valley Project, which also depends on water from the delta, will issue its first official estimate of water deliveries next month.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which operates the CVP, the California Farm Bureau Federation said a combination of solutions for the delta are needed, including new surface water storage with continuous appropriation, protection for area-of-origin water rights, improved water conveyance and delta ecosystem improvements.

"We need a holistic approach to solving water supply problems that will ensure reliability for our growing population, provide vital environmental protection and offer farmers the ability to continue growing our nation's food supply," said Elisa Noble, CFBF director for livestock, public lands and natural resources.

DWR snow surveyor Frank Gehrke speaks with reporters after the season's first survey of the Sierra Nevada snowpack. The surveys help water planners estimate potential runoff and water supplies for the coming spring and summer. (Photo courtesy of DWR.)

Farm Bureau also called for federal agencies to coordinate with existing efforts to complete the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a comprehensive environmental recovery effort that aims to protect species, water supplies and the economy. Farm Bureau pointed out that federal investment and cost-sharing in the area of water conservation is a critical need.

"We support expediting farm bill funding that can be used for land stewardship in the delta and upstream areas," Noble said.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration released its "Interim Federal Action Plan for the California Bay-Delta" last month. The 23-page report said the administration took "swift and wide-ranging action" to move California water issues from the back burner to the forefront of federal attention during 2009, including investing more than $1 billion to address California water needs.

But the continuing crisis "requires all hands on deck to help those who are suffering," U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a written statement. "We are moving aggressively to do our part to address the urgent need to provide reliable water supplies for 25 million Californians, while also protecting the bay-delta ecosystem upon which the supplies depend."

The document focuses on water supply fixes that can be accomplished as soon as this year and pledges greater involvement in the ongoing Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which Farm Bureau has been actively helping to shape.

Actions in the federal plan include:

  • Fast-track permitting and construction of the Delta-Mendota and California Aqueduct Intertie Project, which will tie the state and federal delivery canals together and provide greater system flexibility. The $34 million project received environmental approval last week.
  • Coordination among federal agencies and DWR to develop a two-year water transfer program based in part on the 2009 Drought Water Bank. In 2012, the agencies will pursue a 10-year Water Transfer Program, intended to streamline the environmental review associated with potential transfers and move transferred water to the market faster.
  • Priority study of the Two Gates project, proposed barriers in the south delta to direct threatened fish away from state and federal water pumps.
  • Assistance for the National Academy of Sciences, which announced last week that it has started its own review of rules that aim to protect delta fish but restrict the state's water supply.
  • Stepped-up research on other factors that impact the delta environment, such as chemicals, stormwater runoff, inadequately treated wastewater and the leaching of toxics such as mercury.

Noble said the new federal work plan for the delta is encouraging because many actions Farm Bureau called for have been incorporated, "but the problem for California's farmers is that they must act now to plant the crops they'll grow in coming months." With storage in California's major reservoirs at a mere 39 percent of capacity as the current water year began and with the first snow survey of the season coming in below average, the outlook for adequate water supplies for irrigation remains in doubt.

"The snowpack is not the issue," Starrh said. "The issue is regulations that allow so much of our water to just go out to sea."

To review the federal work plan online, go to

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Reporter Ron Miller contributed to this story.)

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