Water & Drought

California farmers brace for more water cuts

As the California drought grinds into its fourth year, the exposed shoreline of Shasta Lake shows the steady drop in water level. The reservoir on the Sacramento River holds about 40 percent of the federal Central Valley Project’s stored supply.
As the California drought grinds into its fourth year, the exposed shoreline of Shasta Lake shows the steady drop in water level. The reservoir on the Sacramento River holds about 40 percent of the federal Central Valley Project’s stored supply. Los Angeles Times

California’s water crisis could be on the verge of getting a good deal worse.

In a potentially significant setback for a system already stressed by epic drought, California regulators have ordered a temporary curb in the flows being released from Lake Shasta in order to protect an endangered species of salmon.

Farmers and others said the immediate impact of the 10-day cutback, ordered late last week by the State Water Resources Control Board, is tolerable. But they expressed concern at a water board hearing Tuesday that the curtailments could go deeper, and last much longer. That could bring significant harm to agriculture and even some municipalities.

State and federal officials acknowledged that reducing flows from Shasta already has caused turmoil among California’s water users.

“There’s a lot of anxiety from a water supply standpoint,” said Ron Milligan, operations manager with the federal government’s Central Valley Project, or CVP. “From Redding to Bakersfield, we’ve got a lot of people interested.”

Shasta is the largest reservoir in the CVP, the massive man-made plumbing system that moves water throughout the state, primarily north to south.

Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance, an advocacy group based in the San Joaquin Valley, said she fears the state water board is considering “a complete cutoff of pumping from Northern California for at least two months this summer.”

But Tom Howard, the board’s executive director, said he won’t know for a while how deeply the state will have to curb outflows from Shasta. The revised plan “is meant to be as reasonable as we can make it,” he said.

Still, there’s probably no easy fix for the Shasta situation, and the impacts could be widespread.

Notably, Milligan said the effects could be felt in Folsom, Roseville and other Sacramento-area municipalities that rely on Folsom Lake. That’s because Folsom, which like Shasta is part of the CVP, could be called on to supply more water to the system to keep ocean salt water from overwhelming the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

For agencies such as the San Juan Water District, which serves Granite Bay and a slice of Folsom, “that’s a little nerve-wracking,” said general manager Shauna Lorance. If Folsom Lake starts dropping because of the Shasta situation, “we will have our elected officials down at the state board” to remind regulators of the lake’s importance to the region’s water supply.

The unexpected hiccup underscores the fragility of California’s water system as the state tries to cope with a fourth year of drought. Concerns about declining fish populations have prompted wildlife officials to haul hundreds of thousands of salmon, trout and steelhead to cooler climes in the past year.

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board, said regulators are struggling to strike a balance between the environment, agriculture and other interests. “We don’t get to say, ‘Oh, forget the fish,’ or ‘Oh, forget the water supply,’ ” Marcus said.

Urban Californians also are under orders to reduce consumption. Water board officials said Tuesday that urban usage fell about 14 percent in April compared with 2013. That was considerably higher than the 3.6 percent conservation reported for March. But it’s well below the 25 percent demanded by Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order, which took effect Monday.

Farmers already are making do with about one-third less surface water than usual, and will fallow an estimated 560,000 acres this year – roughly 7 percent of their average annual irrigated crop, according to a study released Tuesday by UC Davis researchers. Crop, dairy and livestock revenue is projected to be $1.2 billion lower this year than it would be absent the drought, and farms will employ about 19,000 fewer workers.

Some farmers are agreeing to reduce water usage voluntarily rather than take mandatory reductions. Michael George, the state’s Delta “water master,” announced Tuesday that about 200 Delta farmers have opted into a voluntary program in which they’ll forgo 25 percent of their water this season. He called the amount of participation significant. Those who didn’t sign up by Monday’s deadline could face more stringent cutbacks.

The Shasta water temperature problem figures to put even more pressure on agriculture.

“This is the part of the season that means the most for the crop,” said Chris White, general manager of the Central California Irrigation District in Los Banos. The district’s farmers are getting about 60 percent of their historic allotment from the CVP, and “any further cuts, if they’re significant, (mean) jeopardy to our growers,” White said.

Lon Martin of the San Luis Water District, also in Los Banos, urged regulators to find a solution that ensures “survival of the fish and the best survival of our growers.”

Under a tentative compromise struck weeks ago, farmers agreed to leave much of their water in Shasta longer than usual in order to keep the lake cool enough for winter-run Chinook salmon to lay their eggs later this summer. But new temperature data last week showed that the waters of Shasta were running warmer than expected. It appeared certain that temperatures would exceed the 56-degree ceiling beyond which the fish eggs would begin dying.

Why so warm? Primarily because there’s been practically no snowmelt to cool the water down.

The winter-run salmon are an endangered species, and “we have an obligation under the Endangered Species Act to do what we can,” Milligan said. As a result, water is being kept longer in Shasta in an effort to cool the reservoir.

Advocates for the state’s salmon industry welcomed the decision. John McManus of the Golden Gate Salmon Association said the $1.4 billion-a-year industry lost the vast majority of its young fish last year and was fearing a repeat.

“What’s important is we don’t lose a second year,” he said.

Farm groups, however, said the salmon problems are creating enormous complications for them. Water districts south of the Delta, already facing a total cutoff of Central Valley Project deliveries this year, have negotiated significant purchases of water from Sacramento Valley farmers who have better supplies. But those deals, worth tens of millions of dollars, could be negated if the Sacramento Valley farmers don’t get as much water from Shasta as they were anticipating.

Restricting releases from Lake Shasta will cause officials to increase releases from Folsom Lake, which supplies much of the Sacramento region’s water. Letting more water out of Folsom Lake could threaten local water supplies.

“When you look upstream, there is no snow” to sustain the lake this summer, Lorance said. “It’s going to hit down here.”

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