Officials outline challenges from ongoing drought


Issue Date: April 15, 2015
By Kate Campbell
Crews began removing this walnut orchard at Paul Wenger’s farm in Modesto Monday. Wenger told a drought briefing in Sacramento that he would be removing 10 percent of his orchards to have enough water to use for the rest of his trees.
Photo/Tracy Sellers

Harkening back to the Dust Bowl, officials painted a sobering picture of current water conditions during a drought briefing in Sacramento. Never in state history has the snowpack been as scarce or depleted, nor has California's population been larger.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, underscoring dwindling water supplies and increased competition for water, called the current drought "probably the most serious challenge our generation has ever faced."

Sponsored by the Association of California Water Agencies, the event included an assessment of the drought's impact on agriculture by California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger and provided updates on the crisis from state and federal officials, as well as water district leaders and representatives of emergency response agencies.

Throughout the briefing, experts stressed that all Californians have a stake in the state's extreme water shortage and repeatedly called for all stakeholders—urban residents, businesses, farmers, scientists and government—to work together to find ways to stretch supplies to make every drop of water work double or triple duty.

California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said, "The message is clear. We have to take action. Everybody is a soldier in this fight."

Wenger said Gov. Brown put it well during a closed-door meeting at the Capitol, held the day before last week's briefing. Quoting the governor, he said, "We're committed to an artificial lifestyle, but nature will rule the day."

Wenger said he appreciated the governor's statement because it recognized the need to better utilize whatever rain and snow falls in the state. Wenger called for better water supply management and infrastructure improvements to avoid future drought disasters.

"My family has been farming the same ground for 105 years and we've never seen a situation like this," he said. "The real question is: Can we adapt to drought? This situation is real and it's not just about cutting back on watering lawns for a while."

Wenger said farmers around the state are idling farmland and that he is also reducing production.

"We're taking out 10 percent of our orchards this year so we can have water to put on the rest of the orchards," he said. "Never would I have thought the day would come when we would have to do that."

In addition, Wenger said that, like other farmers forced to fallow ground and rip out orchards and vineyards, he will continue to pay property taxes on his nonproducing land and cover any fees associated with ownership, as well as pay fees for water not delivered while being unable to use the ground because of lack of water.

"Agriculture has taken and will continue to take cuts and do what we have to do to get by. We shouldn't be pointing fingers at each other," Wenger said.

According to a survey released by the California Farm Water Coalition last week, about 620,000 acres are expected to be fallowed this year. Associated job losses could reach 23,000, with a hit to the state's economy exceeding $5.7 billion. A University of California agricultural economist has told reporters that as many as 1 million acres may be idled this year.

State climatologist Michael Anderson said the April 1 snow survey—which showed the Sierra Nevada snowpack at just 5 percent of average—didn't just break all previous records, "it's kicking it to the curb."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has already announced that for the 2015 crop year, more than 2 million acres used for food production in the Central Valley will not receive surface water supplies. Farms that receive water from the State Water Project will have an 80 percent supply cut.

Reviewing the status of the federal Central Valley Project, USBR regional director David Murillo said total water volume in the CVP system now stands at about 8 million acre-feet. The 2015 system-wide allocation stands at about 3 million acre-feet, with surface water deliveries going to senior water right holders and exchange contractors at about 75 percent of contract amount. Junior water right holders will receive zero, he said. Municipal and industrial users have been reduced to 25 percent of historical use.

"Several reservoirs do have more water than last year," Murillo said. "But we had to look at the combination of snowpack, forecasted runoff and what's in storage to decide what the water supply is going to be for this year."

Even though reservoir levels are higher, "overall the water just is not there," he said, adding there's about 300,000 acre-feet in rescheduled water in the CVP system that can be released to owners who conserved supplies from last year or who previously purchased and stored water.

John Sweigard, general manager of the Merced Irrigation District, said the district's Lake McClure seems to be the "poster child" example of some of the worst water storage in the state. The reservoir, which has a capacity of about 1 million acre-feet, currently holds less than 10 percent of that.

He said the reservoir, which receives water through Yosemite National Park and the Merced River watershed, is important for local and statewide reasons. The district provides water to irrigate 134,000 farm acres and serves a number of isolated rural communities. The district also has a 100-megawatt hydroelectric power plant that will produce zero power this year, and recreational uses of the reservoir will not be available.

Also during the drought briefing, Daniel Berlant, public information officer for Cal Fire, outlined increased fire risk, and Eric Lamoureux of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services detailed steps to help communities that lack running water.

That includes delivering drinking and sanitation water to communities in bottles, placing temporary water tanks in yards and setting up temporary community showers in parking lots.

"We're supporting these programs using the California Public Assistance Act and estimate through the 2015-16 fiscal year we'll spend more than $20 million to get water to individuals," Lamoureux said. "But as we work to deploy these temporary solutions, we know this cannot be the long-term answer."

(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.