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Commentary: Is it a drought and what is the state doing about it?

Issue Date: December 25, 2013
By Jeanine Jones
California farmers have had to leave some land unplanted because of water shortages. Drought impacts to irrigated agriculture depend on the source and nature of farms’ water supply.

Are we in a drought yet? What are we doing about it? These questions are being asked with increasing frequency as dry conditions persist.

Water years 2012 and 2013 were dry statewide, especially in parts of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Water year 2014, which began on Oct. 1, continues this trend. Precipitation in the northern and southern Sierra Nevada is to date tracking just slightly above the driest year of record. Statewide reservoir storage going into our wet season was about 75 percent of average for this time of year, and impacts of two dry years on statewide groundwater levels are also evident. The largest groundwater level declines in excess of 50 feet have been observed in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley where surface water shortages have triggered increased pumping by irrigators.

On average, about half of California's statewide precipitation occurs in December, January and February, with only a handful of large winter storms accounting for the difference between a wet year and a dry one. An experimental seasonal forecast for the water year, issued in late November by the Department of Water Resources, sees mostly dry conditions for the state.

It is still too early, however, to call this water year, and Mother Nature may surprise us. About half of the years with similarly dry first quarters in the historical record of northern Sierra precipitation, for example, caught up to average by the end of the season.

Defining drought is a function of impacts to water users. Drought conditions and impacts vary greatly across a state the size of California. Ranchers grazing livestock on nonirrigated pasture will have a different perspective on drought than municipalities with reliable groundwater supplies or stored surface water. The site-specific nature of drought impacts is readily seen in agriculture. Impacts are normally felt earliest by those relying on unmanaged water supplies—businesses carrying out dryland grazing and nonirrigated crop production. Impacts to irrigated agriculture depend on the source and nature of the irrigation water supply—local groundwater, local surface water or imported surface water—and any water rights or contractual provisions that may be associated with the source.

If 2014 does turn out to be a dry year, likely risks could be categorized as:

  • Health and safety and economic: Catastrophic wildfires, as experienced in Southern California in 2003 and 2007.
  • Health and safety: Drinking water supply impacts to small water systems and private well owners on unreliable fractured rock groundwater sources in rural areas.
  • Environmental: Continued land subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley, affecting water supply and flood protection facilities.
  • Economic: Loss of rangeland carrying capacity and minimal water allocations to some agricultural water users, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.

Although we hope that this winter marks a return to good water supply conditions, DWR has been preparing for the possibility of a dry 2014. We held an agricultural drought preparedness workshop on Dec. 17 in partnership with the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno, wrapping up a fall season of outreach events with water users to encourage being ready for ongoing dry conditions. (See story)

We continue to work on long-term projects including as an effort with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the federal National Integrated Drought Information System program to estimate Central Valley fallowed acreage during the growing season from remote sensing data, to help quantify drought impacts. On the urban side, we continue our partnership with the Association of California Water Agencies in the Save Our Water conservation education campaign.

Recognizing potential implications of continuing dry conditions, the governor issued an executive order in May that directed DWR and the State Water Resources Control Board to expedite and facilitate processing of one-year water transfers, and additionally directed DWR to coordinate State Water Project operations to alleviate critical impacts to San Joaquin Valley agriculture. DWR has been meeting with water transfer buyers and sellers to develop a schedule and procedures for the coming season, and to facilitate fast-tracking of transfers with appropriate supporting documentation. We have updated our guidance document for this season's transfers, are simplifying contracting procedures for transfers dependent on SWP facilities, and continue to work with SWRCB and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to improve coordination on state and federal approvals of transfers requiring access to water project facilities.

On Dec. 17, the governor directed DWR, SWRCB, the Department of Food and Agriculture, and the Office of Emergency Services to convene an interagency Drought Task Force to review expected water project allocations, our state of preparedness and whether conditions warrant declaration of statewide drought.

We will be closely watching the results of our January and February snow surveys as we move forward with this effort. The first snow survey of the winter season will take place about Jan. 1, with the Sierra snowmelt runoff forecasts following about a week thereafter.

(Jeanine Jones is interstate resources manager and deputy drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources.)

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

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