2020 wildfires could be boon for water allocation

Friant contractors expect at least a 15% allocation after the Creek Fire severely damaged absorbent soil and trees

TULARE COUNTY – Last summer’s catastrophic Creek Fire burned about 380,000 acres in the upper San Joaquin watershed, the largest fire in the Sierra Nevada’s history. The fire literally exploded, fed by strong gusty winds and 150 million dead trees the fire scorched 43% of the burned area “with high severity” said the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency.

Altogether, about 36% of the upper San Joaquin watershed was burned—the same watershed that supplies nine dams and impounds water that feeds a million acres of farmland below, along the Madera and Friant Kern Canals.

Experts explain besides tree loss, “fire removes the absorbent layers of fallen and decaying plant matter on the forest floor. These layers, called litter and duff, can store more moisture than soil can. Without these layers, heavy rain can provide more water than the ground can absorb. This contributes to surface runoff.”

Several agencies have predicted that the huge fire might have impacts on the 2021 spring runoff, which are important to communities and farms along the east side of the Valley including Tulare County.

Friant contractors have been not-so-patiently waiting to see how much water is in the upper watershed this year hoping that there will be enough to allow the Bureau of Reclamation to confirm their earlier estimate of a 20% allocation of the Class 1 contract of 800,000-acre feet. That would yield 200,000-acre feet this year.

But as the California drought and extreme heat have grown more shocking in the past few months, fear has been building that there might be a zero allocation to east side farms who have little river water coming down the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern Rivers either this spring.

As of June 18 the Bureau realized there is more water in the upper San Joaquin River watershed than they had thought, says Dan Vink, Executive Director of the South Valley Water Association that has seven Friant water district members farming about 400,000 acres.

Allocation update

In a meeting with Friant members, the Bureau assured the group there would be “at least a 15% allocation this year,” Vink said, and “maybe more depending if any Friant water has to go to satisfy the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors.”

Vink calls the 15% “a floor amount”—about 120,000 acre feet.

“There could be up to 30% allocation if the Exchange Contractors don’t need Friant water,” Vink said.

The Exchange Contractors water supply depends on how much Shasta water is available this year.

Despite these private discussions the Bureau has yet to make any public declaration. But Vink added that “without a doubt there is more water in the upper [San Joaquin River] watershed because of the Creek Fire.”

Indeed, several agencies have suggested runoff could increase as much as 30% in the first year after such a fire. Not only are there no trees or brush to soak up snowmelt but the severe damage to some soils could cause it to become water-repellent.

If there is some ironic good news for water users, the dams and hydroelectric plants in this region could be idled, and face higher costs in the future due to sediment and debris flow. Then there is the difficulty of predicting the impact on salmon in the San Joaquin River who depend on flows and cold-water temperatures later its summer.

With so much of the upper watershed not able to retain water, next winter’s atmospheric river—if one comes—could be a nightmare and cause massive flooding downstream.

While no one would suggest wildfires benefit farm water supply, agencies do suggest mechanical thinning of forests could boost water supply as well as forest health.

One prediction from the Public Policy Institute of California, “reducing tree cover by about 40% may result in a 9% increase in water yield. Conversely, burning grasslands leads to negligible increases in water supply.

Managing forests with mechanical thinning and prescribed burning simulates the effects of low- and moderate-severity wildfire—creating opportunities to improve forest health while increasing water supply.”

“You’ve lost brush, you’ve lost canopy, and the soils have drastically changed as a result of the fire,” David Rizzardo, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) branch chief for hydrology and forecasting said. “All of this impacts our modeling efforts.”

Start typing and press Enter to search