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The thirsty land: Rivers are low. Reservoirs are down. The signs point to fewer crops and fallow fields.
Low reservoir levels, scant precipitation and a nearly nonexistent snowpack have California worrying about water as this historically dry water year continues into the middle of January.
The state's agricultural industry will be hit hard if the water situation fails to improve, but exactly how severe the impact will be remains uncertain.
The initial estimates: It'll be bad.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Central Valley as a whole may be forced to fallow 300,000 to 500,000 acres of farm land in the spring due to heavy cutbacks in water allocations. Representatives from local agencies believe Colusa County will see its share of annual crop land idled.
"Concern is pretty high," said Thaddeus Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. "Internally, within our district, we have concerns about some crops right now needing water. Most years, we're operating our system year-round. We shut down Oct. 31 and may not start again until April 1, which has never happened. It's an immediate concern. And you've got growers looking at this summer — you've got mass shortages in the Sacramento Valley and down south. Growers are aware of the physical and political situation out there. We're going to have some land that needs to be idled just because we're not going to have the supply to meet all our needs."
According to Ashley Indrieri, executive director of Family Water Alliance, the GCID is the largest water district in the county, providing water to about half of the land in the area.
"The districts are sweating. If it gets really bad, some fields that normally grow annual crops will have to be fallowed," Indrieri said.
Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority general manager Jeffrey Sutton agreed.
"If things continue to stay dry, I think you'll see significant fallowing of annual crops in the area," Sutton said.
The TCCA is a Joint Powers Authority composed of 17 Central Valley Project water contractors. They supply much of the irrigation water to the west side of Colusa County, where many of the county's perennial crops — such as almonds and walnuts — are grown.
Doug McGeogegan, who farms rice out of Maxwell, said uncertainty looms for farmers around the Colusa Basin who use water from Reclamation District 2047 to irrigate their lands.
"It's the main drainage canal in the area. Many people have long-standing water rights for the Colusa Drain there, but it is only available if the water is actually there in the drain. If they declare it a 'Shasta Critical Year,' there will be a lot less water being pumped in by the established irrigation districts, which means less water will show up in the drain," McGeogegan said.
Depending on Shasta
Local farmers, agencies and water suppliers are preparing for the worst. Undoubtedly, early figures from the California Department of Water Resources and the United States Geological Survey will be cause for concern.
DWR's most recent numbers for the Shasta Reservoir show that it holds merely 36 percent of its total capacity and 56 percent of the average for this time of year with 1.66 million acre-feet of water.
"When we're in a more normal weather routine, Shasta typically doesn't dip much below 3 million acre-feet," Sutton said.
At this point in an average year, Shasta would typically have 2.975 million acre-feet of water stored, according to the DWR's report.
According to the CVP Water Supply Report from the Bureau of Reclamation, inflow numbers for Shasta are historically low this year as well — just 584,000 acre-feet, or 45 percent, of the 15-year average for January 12 — possibly spelling a critical year for Sacramento Settlement Contractors and a 25 percent cut to the GCID's settlement contract supply. The previous low, set in the drought of 1977, was 789,000 acre-feet.
The GCID's Bettner said the district's contract with the Bureau of Reclamation stipulates the district gets all of the water it needs as long as the inflow to the Sacramento River from Shasta is at least 3.2 million acre-feet of water. If it's less, the district's water portion is reduced to 75 percent.
"As it stands now, it's just bone dry," Bettner said, who added the district is very likely to see its portion reduced to 75 percent. "If things stay as dry as they have been, it could mean more, which is unprecedented."
Still, GCID's settlement water contract with the Bureau of Reclamation makes its situation more predictable than TCCA's — being that TCCA is made up of Central Valley Project water contractors. Initial allocations for the CVP's water contractors irrigating from the Tehama-Colusa Canal have not yet been announced, but Sutton, who has seen a similar scenario in the past, expects the figure to be low.
"In 2010, we were at a very similar reservoir levels, resulting in an initial allocation of 0 percent in February of that year," he said. "However, we experienced significant rainfall, and by April, we ended up with an allocation of 100 percent.
"With that being said, this has been one of the driest years on record, and that certainly causes concern," Sutton said.
The dry numbers
The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Shasta Dam and the Central Valley Project, typically reduces outflow during the wet season to store water for farms and cities to use in the dry months. The idea is to save water, but on Sunday, the outflow from Shasta was 3,048 cubic feet-per-second, whereas the inflow was 2,663 — in other words, more water was going out than coming in.
It marks a trend over the past month and a half: Since November 26, the stored water in Shasta Reservoir has dropped steadily from just over 1.70 million acre-feet to the current level of 1.66 million. There were 36 days during that span in which Shasta Reservoir's outflow was greater than its inflow.
Compare these numbers with those from Jan. 11, 2009 — a similarly dry year that caused then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declare a state of emergency — when the inflow was 3,371 cfps compared with an outflow of 2,451 cfps. From Nov. 26, 2009, to Jan. 11, 2009, there were only 14 days in which the outflow was greater than the inflow. In that time span, reservoir storage rose from 1.33 million to 1.38 million acre-feet.
Although the outflow from Shasta for Sunday was higher than it was on the same date in 2009, the lack of precipitation and runoff to supplement river flow has led to the lowest discharge rate for the Sacramento River at Colusa on record. According to a USGS river discharge survey for Monday, the discharge of the Sacramento River at Colusa was 3,690 cfps. That number is far below than the previous minimum of 4,690 cfps from 2009 and nowhere near the median number of 11,400 cfps calculated from 68 years of data.
What does it all mean? Nothing that growers and water providers are not already aware of: This has been a very, very dry winter thus far, following two drier-than-average winters in the years prior. Stockpiles of water were already low, having been strained in 2012 and 2013. With the prolonged drought conditions this winter, the inflow has not been there to replenish them.
"I think what bothers people the most isn't the variations in the weather, but the inability for anyone to solve the problem. We take all these measures to conserve water and we still get cut," Indrieri said.
One potential solution — mentioned by Indrieri, Sutton and Reclamation District 1004 Board Member Ed Hulbert — involves a more forward-looking approach.
"(The state) has to start looking at the mid- and long-term solutions," Hulbert said, mentioning the potential Sites Reservoir as one possibility.
Sutton pointed to insufficient water storage facilities as part of the reason California has had a difficult time coping in drier years, saying that more water needs to be stored in the event of a string of dry years like the current one, and those years from 2008 to 2010.
He also mentioned the Sites Reservoir as a long-term solution to help meet the demands of 38 million thirsty Californians.
"What's unfortunate is that California hasn't invested in its water infrastructure heavily since the 1960s. We haven't kept up with our infrastructure and increasing water storage (as the population has boomed). Also, the utility of our current reservoirs are shrinking due to environmental regulatory mandates," Sutton said. "These reservoirs were the bank accounts for trying to get through these times. It's now pretty much a year-to-year challenge, resulting in crisis management every time we hit a dry cycle. ... This really illustrates the need for increased storage space, and we have a great local project in the Sites Reservoir."
"California's population has boomed, and the demand on the system has increased by three times or more," said McGeoghegan. "We absolutely live from hand to mouth in the rice industry in California. We have the same exact reservoir situation as we did in 1976, with three times the population and more environmental regulations."
McGeoghegan, however, said he does not think the Sites project would constitute a simple fix. He cited the high cost of installing the infrastructure needed to send water — from what would be a "huge" pumping facility off of Highway 45 — from the river all the way to Sites.
Keeping orchards alive
"Most of the permanent crops are on the west side. Because water there is so expensive, they need a crop to give them returns on the water," Indrieri said. "The T-C is low man on the totem pole. In 2008, they only received 10 to 15 percent of their water. That was it. And this is a worse situation than in 2008. There are more legal challenges, more environmental regulations."
While the Tehama-Colusa Canal provides much of the water to the more lucrative perennial crops in those areas, they are not guaranteed any specific amount of water from the CVP — and they could very well see another initial allotment of 0 percent, like in 2010.
The Bureau of Reclamation typically allocates CVP water equally among all users, but it can do so on a priority basis during dry years like this one. And even if the Sacramento Valley does get another "Miracle March," CVP contractors cannot wait that long to make preparations. Those CVP contractors are already looking at other sources, including in-basin transfers and groundwater, to keep their orchards alive.
While annual crops can be idled as a means to buffering for a water shortage, Sutton said, losing a permanent crop investment "can really be a catastrophic disaster."
This was a sentiment echoed by Indrieri: "You can fallow rice and other annual crops (when you have to cut back on water), but you can't do that with orchards."
"The tree crops on the west side are very valuable crops. There will be more and more efforts to streamline transfer mechanisms between water districts, where a rice farmer can choose to leave a field fallow to ship water to keep a tree crop healthy and alive," McGeoghegan said.
"There is a lot of sentiment in the valley to meeting the needs of the Sacramento Valley first," Sutton said. "Agriculture is the foundation of our economy, and we're doing everything we can to minimize and mitigate the impact of the drought."