As we start a new water year in California, it is valuable to take stock of how the Sacramento Valley endured during the fourth consecutive year of dry conditions.
As we have seen in Northern California, with little snow and rain, there was reduced water for cities and rural communities, farm fields were left fallow, our wildlife refuges and rice lands had less food and water for waterfowl and shorebirds, and there was less water in the rivers for migrating salmon.
As a fourth-generation farmer and conservationist in Yolo and Colusa counties, I have seen firsthand how people have struggled without water, while also watching and appreciating the tremendous efforts that many people have made to get us through this year. In the Sacramento Valley, we are not only blessed with a beautiful valley, we also have a culture of success and hard work that was key to getting us through this challenging year.
It is important to acknowledge, that despite conventional wisdom about water wars, we did not get through this year by filing lawsuits, arguing over abstract water principles, challenging contracts or attacking somebody else’s water use.
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In the Sacramento Valley, we followed a different path – one where water resources managers worked closely with progressive environmental and conservation leaders and state and federal agencies. We all rolled up our sleeves to maximize every drop of available water for the wonderful mosaic of cities and rural communities, farms, fish and birds throughout the region.
As an example, during the past several dry years, the water suppliers on the Sacramento River joined to work with federal and state agencies, including the fishery agencies, to develop and then implement a Sacramento River operations plan that was primarily designed to protect winter- and fall-run salmon, while also providing water for farms, wildlife refuges and managed wetlands.
Under the operations plan, water released from Shasta Lake served triple duty by first providing water for spawning salmon, and then for downstream use by farms, wildlife refuges, managed wetlands and cities. As a result, there is now 440,000 acre-feet more water in Shasta Lake than this time last year for salmon and other purposes.
Additionally, Sacramento Valley water suppliers are partnering with leading environmental organizations – The Nature Conservancy, American Rivers and California Trout – on the Sacramento Valley Salmon Recovery Program, which provides a comprehensive plan for the next generation of projects to benefit salmon.
The water suppliers have screened their diversions to keep salmon safe in the rivers; they have changed their diversion schedule and remanaged the flow of water throughout the Valley to provide cold water and pulse flows for the benefit of spawning and migrating salmon; and they have formulated and implemented projects that will improve spawning habitat and the migratory corridors along the rivers. Importantly, this program will implement the federal National Marine Fisheries Service’s Salmon Recovery Plan for the Sacramento River and Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Water Action Plan.
With respect to birds, a broad coalition of environmental organizations that focus on waterfowl and birds are working closely with water suppliers and rice growers to secure water to enhance bird habitat during a dry year when there is little water available. The water suppliers deliver water to the wildlife refuges and the rice lands in the Sacramento Valley, which serve as the critical food source for migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway.
The drought has been difficult, but through the hard work of many people throughout the region, we can maintain the unique beauty and value of our Valley for generations to come.
Fritz Durst is a fourth-generation farmer from Yolo County.