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Water outlook prompts zero state allocations

Issue Date: February 5, 2014
By Kate Campbell
Lake Oroville in Butte County, the principal State Water Project reservoir, is only about a third of its 3.5 million acre-foot holding capacity, an amount equal to 55 percent of its historical average for this time of year. Oroville Dam, which collects water from the Feather River watershed, is the tallest dam in the United States, measuring 770 feet high—44 feet taller than Hoover Dam.
Photo/Department of Water Resources

A smattering of rain and snow last week will not change the state's dire water situation, state officials said. With major reservoirs at about 35 percent of historical average for this time of year, officials said the state is dangerously close to running out of water and deliveries to State Water Project customers have been cut to zero.

A similar announcement is expected at the end of February from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for water delivered through the Central Valley Project. Two years of below-normal precipitation have depleted reservoirs and increased reliance on underground aquifers and officials said 2014 is shaping up as the driest in state history.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger called last week's water allocation announcement a "terrible blow," but not unexpected, given the relentless drought punishing California.

"Under current conditions, we expect hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the Central Valley to go unplanted," Wenger said. "That will cause severe economic problems in our rural regions—loss of jobs and economic activity, with all the heartache that entails."

Officials in the San Joaquin Valley town of Mendota, which suffered high unemployment during water shortages in 2007-08, said they expect unemployment in their area to reach 50 percent in coming months. Local businesses also face serious financial losses, they said.

The historic announcement of zero water deliveries reflects the severity of California's drought, state officials said last week during a briefing for stakeholders. Storage in key reservoirs now is lower than at this time in 1977, one of the two previous driest water years on record.

"The harsh weather leaves us little choice," said Department of Water Resources Director Director Mark Cowin. "If we are to have any hope of coping with continued dry weather and balancing multiple needs, we must act now to preserve what water remains in our reservoirs."

Never before in the 54-year history of the SWP has a zero allocation been made to all 29 public water agencies that buy from the state project. These deliveries help supply water to 25 million Californians and roughly 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland, located primarily on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley from Stockton to Bakersfield.

Except for a small amount of carryover water from 2013, SWP deliveries to agricultural districts with long-standing water rights in the Sacramento Valley may be cut 50 percent—the maximum permitted by contract—depending on future snow survey results. Those districts, according to DWR, have other sources of water, such as groundwater, local reservoirs and other supplies.

"It is our duty to give State Water Project customers a realistic understanding of how much water they will receive from the project," Cowin said. "Simply put, there's not enough water in the system right now for customers to expect any water this season from the project."

DWR also has asked the State Water Resources Control Board to adjust water permit terms that control state and federal water project operations to preserve dwindling supplies in upstream reservoirs for farms, fisheries and cities and towns as the drought continues.

Officials declined to speculate on the drop in reservoir levels necessary to stop all releases to protect carryover water for 2015. The bureau announced last week that flows required under the San Joaquin River Restoration will be reduced a month early, saving about 13,000 acre-feet for Friant Division settlement contractors and to meet human health and safety needs.

Additional winter storms may provide a limited boost to reservoir storage and water deliveries, they said, adding it would need to rain and snow heavily every other day from now until May to get statewide supplies back to average annual rain and snowfall.

As the state's water situation worsens, Wenger said rural areas face "severe economic problems" from water shortages unless significant rainfall occurs in coming months.

Last week's Sierra snow survey found the snowpack's statewide water content at only 12 percent of average for this time of year.

Lake Oroville in Butte County, the principal SWP reservoir, is at 36 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity, equal to 55 percent of its historical average for the date. Shasta Lake north of Redding, California's and the federal CVP's largest reservoir, is at 36 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity, about 54 percent of average for the date.

Meanwhile, San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-Delta reservoir shared by the SWP and CVP, is at 30 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity or 39 percent of average for the date.

Like many Californians, Wenger said farmers and ranchers have improved water use efficiency significantly in the years since the previous record drought of 1977. Since 1980, for example, the amount of water applied to agricultural land in California has gone down 24 percent while tonnage of crop production has increased 34 percent.

"We're consistently achieving more crop per drop. But greater efficiency can only go so far, and when water allocations drop, oftentimes the only choice for farmers is to reduce production. Farmers will face many difficult choices in coming weeks," Wenger said.

He said Farm Bureau will work with state and federal government agencies to seek effective responses to the water crisis, in both the short term and the long term.

"Fish and wildlife will also suffer from lack of water. Many of these negative environmental impacts could have been avoided if California had done a better job of planning for dry years, including construction of new surface storage facilities. It's a mistake we can't afford to continue to repeat," Wenger said.

"We hope the announcement will focus Californians' attention on the immediate need to improve our outdated water system," he said. "Our current crisis shows that California must invest in more water storage, so we can better cushion ourselves against damage caused by drought and against long-term variations due to climate change. It is time to pass a bond measure that includes new surface storage projects."

CFBF is closely monitoring the state's water situation and updates on pertinent information and information resources is online at

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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