Commentary: Drought reveals real threat to agricultural community


Issue Date: January 15, 2014
By Lance W. Johnson
Water storage in Folsom Lake east of Sacramento stood at just 18 percent of capacity last week.
Photo/Rhonda Asher

The start of the new year always finds people reflecting on prior years and making predictions for the coming year on most any subject one can think of. Throughout most of California, especially among farmers, and particularly farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, the hot topic of the 2014 new year is the ever-worsening drought conditions and this year's abysmal water supply outlook.

As I write this, the state Department of Water Resources has begun releasing results of its Jan. 1 snow survey. Though statewide data are incomplete, results from the San Joaquin River watershed were reported and they don't paint a pretty picture—just 25 percent of normal. And results available from Northern California aren't any better—the American River watershed, draining into Folsom Lake and the delta, has just 26 percent of normal. And that's Northern California's bright spot. Regionally, Northern California snow-water equivalents were at just 1 inch of water, only 11 percent of average for the date.

Such results are horrifying enough, but snowpack is but one part of the equation making up the San Joaquin Valley water supply outlook. The second part of that equation is reservoir storage carried over from the prior year. Unfortunately, after two previous drought years, statewide reservoir storage generally ranges from poor to very poor, with some reservoirs being at their lowest levels in decades. The Folsom reservoir is at the lowest level since it was built 60 years ago, already triggering urban water rationing in much of the Sacramento area.

The water supply equation also includes reservoir inflow that is, well, extremely low to nonexistent all across the state. Fact is that after two prior years of drought and with 2013 having been the driest year in state history, watersheds have little or no water left to give up, and any rain that does fall is simply soaked up like a dry sponge.

And finally, there's the increasingly stringent environmental regulations that are taking a bigger-than-ever bite out of our water supplies. This year is in fact the first time there's been three consecutive drought years with all of the new regulations in effect. Regulations which, unlike that 1987-92 drought period, now require huge quantities of water, more than the entire capacities of Shasta and Folsom reservoirs combined, for fishery protection and enhancement actions—none of which have been scientifically proven to actually work—and restoration actions like those on the San Joaquin River. Unfortunately today, when every drop of water is vitally important, the San Joaquin River restoration flows have, for over two months, been as much as three times the full natural flow of the river, draining storage and already causing the loss of enough water to serve the city of Fresno for weeks.

With many valley farmers having already been advised to expect water supplies of 0 to just 10 percent, even if it does start raining, we should expect that well over 500,000 acres of valley farmland, an area as large as the state of Rhode Island, will be fallow in 2014. This will equate to billions of dollars in economic activity and thousands of jobs lost in all sectors of the economy, from farmworkers, to truck drivers, processors, advertisers, marketers and equipment and auto dealers to all types of stores, from local mom-and-pops to big chain retailers without customers. And considering that 14.5 percent of California's electricity normally comes from hydropower generation, which will be way down in 2014, don't be surprised if utilities have difficulty keeping the lights on and have to raise electric rates to deal with it.

Having dealt with two of them before, I can attest that little good normally comes from droughts. Farmers always bear the brunt of the impacts, while city folks are usually blissfully oblivious. But if 2014 remains dry, as all data indicates it will, urbanites all up and down the state are going to get a huge dose of the harsh reality that California now faces a perpetual water supply crisis that can only be solved by building new storage facilities and updating our water-delivery systems. So maybe this is one instance where a 2014 drought will have one beneficial aspect to it.

(Lance W. Johnson of Shaver Lake is a water resources engineer and former water agency general manager with 35 years of experience working on California and San Joaquin Valley water resource issues. Reprinted with permission from the Fresno Bee.)

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