Low allocations of surface water could lead to idling of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland
SACRAMENTO – The 2020-21 California drought has led to significant water cutbacks, compelling farmers to fallow ground and public officials to respond with legislation intended to address the state’s chronic water shortages.
Farmers in more parts of the state have learned in recent days just how little water they will have available to them this summer, as water suppliers from the Oregon border to the North Coast to the San Joaquin Valley announced low allocations.
One-fourth of the state’s irrigated farmland—about 2 million acres—will have only 5% of full surface water supply, according to the California Farm Water Coalition, which added that other areas have had water supplies cut by 25% or more.
California Farm Bureau president Jamie Johansson said drought has affected farms and communities from the Oregon border to the Mexican border.
“California must do better to take advantage of wet times to carry us through the inevitable dry times,” Johansson said. “We must accelerate use of the water storage money voters approved in the Proposition 1 water bond in 2014. We must boost groundwater recharge and be sure Congress includes funding for Western water projects in any infrastructure package. In the short term, we must care for the vulnerable and hard-hit regional economies and communities that will bear the brunt of water shortages.”
Those communities include the Klamath Basin, where farmers in the federal Klamath Project learned that only 33,000 acre-feet of water would be made available for irrigation—about 6% of what the project would have provided prior to the implementation of Endangered Species Act regulations in the early 2000s, according to the Klamath Water Users Association.
“Family farms, rural communities and wildlife are going to suffer beyond imagination,” said KWUA president Ben DuVal, who farms in the basin.
Farmers usually grow more than 175,000 acres of potatoes, alfalfa, grass hay and specialty crops, including mint, horseradish, dehydrated onions and garlic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would make available up to $10 million in aid from its Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus to assist Klamath Basin farmers.
Along the North Coast, farmers are also experiencing water shortages due to extremely low lake levels, such as at Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, which are reportedly at their lowest levels in more than 40 years. Farmers who rely on recycled water from the city of Santa Rosa learned last week that they will receive only a third of the typical allotment. Farm Bureau managers in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties said they expect farmers to idle land and reduce herd sizes.
In another development, the Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District announced last week that, due to drought, they will not release up to 100,000 acre-feet of “pulse flow” water to San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority contractors; a smaller pulse flow of water will be released for out-migrating salmon in the Stanislaus River.
That means less water available to agencies such as the Del Puerto Water District. Based in Patterson, the district has suffered chronic shortages the past two decades.
A south-of-delta Central Valley Project contractor, Del Puerto was initially allocated 5% of its contract supply—only to see that allocation suspended as the drought worsened.
“Effectively, we are operating off of a 0% current year allocation,” said Del Puerto general manager Anthea Hansen, who added that six inches per acre of water carried over from last year is stored in San Luis Reservoir, and should be available for use.
The agency had expected to have access to 5,000 acre-feet of water from the OID and SSJID pulse flow.
“We’re working hard to develop any supplemental sources of water to provide a little more relief, but right now things are looking pretty bleak,” Hansen said.
During the 2014-15 drought, Del Puerto irrigators fallowed about 15,000 acres—about 30% of the district’s land—and Hansen said she expects the same amount could be fallowed this year, to save water for permanent crops.
To secure more water, Del Puerto partnered with nearby cities to purchase recycled water for agricultural use. The district also has proposed construction of the 82,000 acre-foot Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir with the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority.
“We need to get some of these [storage] projects across the finish line,” Hansen said. “We talk a lot and we study a lot, but California is pretty remiss in actually getting something on the ground.”
California Farm Bureau director of water resources Danny Merkley said the current drought has been brought on by the combination of reduced precipitation and environmental regulations.
“We call on the help of our state and federal lawmakers to assist farmers and communities during this time of drought, but also to fast-track desperately needed water storage, groundwater recharge and infrastructure projects, to avoid future situations like we’re experiencing this year,” he said.
Merkley said Farm Bureau has joined with other agricultural groups and irrigation districts in working on an “early action budget plan” by state senate president pro tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, which would address drought, safe drinking water and water supply reliability. The plan would allocate $2 billion in one-time state and federal money to accelerate a variety of water projects and programs.
Atkins “is focused on the drought and is interested in getting money out immediately to fund existing programs that will help agriculture and others,” Merkley said.
At the federal level, Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, John Garamendi, D-Napa, Josh Harder, D-Turlock, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced the introduction of the Canal Conveyance Capacity Restoration Act, which would authorize more than $653 million to restore the capacity of the Delta-Mendota Canal, Friant-Kern Canal and California Aqueduct.
Sponsors said canal repairs would improve water availability, help drought resilience and reduce reliance on groundwater pumping. The bill would also authorize an additional $180 million to restore salmon runs in the San Joaquin River.
Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].