Forecast: ‘Zero’ water for many Central Valley farms

Federal officials announced Friday that the ongoing drought in California means there likely will be no water available for agricultural water customers in the Central Valley this year, including its customers in the Sacramento Valley.

The water allocation forecast by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a routine event in early winter, based on projected snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada. But the projection announced Friday was anything but routine.

The agency predicted that its agricultural water contractors in the Central Valley will get no water this year. There simply isn’t enough to go around, Reclamation officials said, and still provide water to its other customers who serve critical health and safety needs in urban areas. Those urban customers, which include many water agencies in the Sacramento region served by Folsom Reservoir, will get only 50 percent of the water allowed under their contracts with Reclamation.

The allocation could improve if storms ease the drought picture before winter ends. A significant storm is expected to soak much of Northern California next week. But the National Weather Service recently reported there is only a 1-in-1,000 chance the season will conclude with even average rainfall, because winter has been so dry.

The water content of the state’s mountain snowpack, essential to refill such reservoirs, is only 25 percent of average.

“This low allocation is yet another indicator of the impacts the severe drought is having on California communities, agriculture, businesses, power and the environment,” Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor said in a statement.

Reclamation serves dozens of water districts throughout the state from a network of canals and reservoirs, including Folsom Lake near Sacramento and Lake Shasta near Redding.

The news follows a similar announcement Jan. 31 by the State Water Project, which also predicted its customers would receive no water this year. The State Water Project, operated by the California Department of Water Resources, runs a separate system drawing from Lake Oroville and the Delta and also serves both agricultural and urban customers throughout the state.

Reclamation’s zero allocation likely will mean a reduction in this year’s rice crop in the Sacramento Valley, said Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission. He could not estimate how much that reduction would be, but said it could amount to “tens of thousands of acres” taken out of production. The Valley normally plants about 550,000 acres in rice during the months of April and May.

“This is something unprecedented at this stage,” Morris said. “We haven’t seen these kinds of cuts proposed. We are still a little unclear on the impacts.”

Rice still will be grown, however. Most rice growers receive water under a different category of water contract that is not being cut as severely, Morris said. These so-called “settlement” contractors hold some of their own water rights and were told to expect 40 percent of their normal deliveries. Even so, this represents the first time that farmers with water rights dating to the 1880s have faced such significant cuts, according to the Association of California Water Agencies.

Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, one of Reclamation’s settlement contractors, said the district plans to meet with the federal agency to discuss justification for the decision. The district’s contract is supposed to limit drought-year cuts to 75 percent of the full contract amount, he said.

“Forty percent is inconsistent with the terms of our contract, so we’re wrestling with that,” Bettner said. “Until we have those conversations with Reclamation, it’s too soon to decide what our next steps are going to be.”

If the cut holds, Bettner said, he expects this would require a 60 percent reduction in planted acres in his district, which would affect rice, tomato and corn production.

The cutbacks in river water deliveries likely mean many farmers will rely more heavily on groundwater pumping, in some cases in areas where aquifers are already being depleted. Some growers also have access to other supplies, including separate rights to surface water in the Sacramento River and other streams.

It’s not yet clear how deep an impact the water crisis will have on California’s economy. The state’s agricultural industry accounts for nearly $20 billion in exports annually, and many small towns depend heavily on farming.

“There’s never been anything like this in the Sacramento Valley,” said David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, which represents landowners and water districts in the Sacramento Valley. “It really affects the communities in the area, which are all highly dependent on this farmland and a reliable water supply. We’re truly in uncharted territory.”

California Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Dave Kranz said that, under current circumstances, “we think it’s fair to estimate that up to 500,000 acres of land in the greater Central Valley will be unplanted this year.”

That amounts to about 6 percent of all the state’s farmland, which totals about 8 million acres of irrigated land in a given year, Kranz said. He said much of that projected unplanted acreage will be in the San Joaquin Valley but some Sacramento Valley land “will be left fallow under current scenarios.”

Reduced rice planting also means less habitat for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife, which depend on flooded rice fields for habitat since the elimination of natural wetlands. Wildlife refuge areas in the Central Valley also depend on water allocated by Reclamation, often under terms set in federal law to protect sensitive species. Water deliveries to refuges will continue, but will be cut to 40 percent of usual contract amounts.

The 50 percent allocation for Reclamation’s urban contractors was not unexpected. Many, especially in the Sacramento region served by Folsom Reservoir, have already asked customers to reduce their water use by 20 percent or more.

John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, said stricter conservation measures are likely in the wake of Friday’s news.

“How far that goes is hard to tell right now,” Woodling said. “It’s going to be challenging. But if that level of delivery can be maintained, hopefully it’s not catastrophic.”

The drought has been caused by a strong high-pressure ridge parked over the eastern Pacific Ocean, which has diverted storms north of California for more than a year. At a drought workshop Thursday in Sacramento, weather experts said such dry conditions are about two times more likely in La Niña years, when the equatorial Pacific Ocean is cooler than normal. But they don’t know why, and are conducting research to understand the causes.

“Something we want to impress upon everyone is that 2014 appears to be a drought like no other,” said Michelle Blacet, special projects manager at the Association of California Water Agencies. She said the state does not have enough well drillers to keep up with demand at the moment. “I’m talking to everyone about conserving water.”

Michael Anderson, state climatologist at the California Department of Water Resources, said weather conditions observed this winter represent a “different world” compared to anything seen since 1895.

“We’re operating on the edge,” Anderson said. “It’s definitely a new edge of the distribution on the warm end and on the dry end.”

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