Discussions of water policy in California tend to begin with “where we’ve been” reminders that harken to days when water flowed more freely to farms in the Golden State.
As the ink sets on the pages of history, California’s 2014 drought may become the new benchmark in future drought discussions, replacing 1977 as the example people use.
Yet not all statistics point to 2014 as the driest.
Michael Anderson, a state climatologist who works with the Department of Water Resources, said the northern Sierra saw its eighth-driest year in the past 90 while the other corner of the state saw a push of summer monsoon moisture that kept low desert regions of Imperial County from experiencing worse drought conditions.
While record-dry conditions did exist for the nation’s agricultural breadbasket, otherwise known as the San Joaquin Valley, the South Coast also saw record-dry conditions. The numbers show that the San Joaquin Valley had 38 percent of average rainfall in a water year that ran from Oct. 2013 to Sept. 2014. The South Coast saw 32 percent of average rainfall for the same period.
As regions go, northeastern California was the least impacted by drought conditions as it saw 63 percent of its normal rainfall for the season. That region is home to alfalfa production, potatoes, onions and some specialty crops including mint and horseradish.
Most troubling to Anderson was the relative warmth associated with the year. California experienced the warmest sustained above-average temperatures throughout the entire year that climatologists have seen, he said.
Many regions of the state saw their warmest temperatures in 120 years on both the maximum and minimum sides of the thermometer.
“That’s rather noteworthy,” Anderson said.
From the supply side of the water discussion California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade is quite worried.
According to Wade, as of Nov. 30 the state’s water storage was at 29.8 percent of capacity and 48.7 percent of year-to-date average.
“The system is almost empty,” Wade said.
Water year 2014 capped a three-year period of reduced precipitation and water storage that saw lake levels throughout the state drop to record lows.
Using a financial savings account analogy, dry years in 2012 and 2013 forced deeper withdrawals from savings captured in surface storage in the absence of previous water deposits. The result according to Wade was seen at the end of 2014 with lake levels at Oroville (State Water Project) lower than they’ve ever been and levels at Shasta Lake (Central Valley Project) slightly above the record low seen in 1977.
Driving these historic lows wasn’t solely the fault of the drought, Wade said.
Between December, 2013 and February, 2014, water officials allowed 727,000 acre feet of water to free-flow through the Delta and into the Pacific Ocean to meet environmental opinions related to salmon and the Delta Smelt.
Overall, state and federal water managers allowed about one million acre feet of water to escape to the ocean without being captured and stored in facilities like San Luis Reservoir, Wade said.
“Drought and 20-plus years of environmental regulations in the Delta created a situation where we were using water for purposes other than what it was designed to be used for,” Wade said.
“I’m not here to say that the ESA is bad or that we shouldn’t be working to protect salmon and Delta Smelt and doing the things that are important to have a quality of life for all Californians, but when you look at the record of success of the ESA in California for those two species it’s dismal,” said Wade. “We’re using a lot of water and we’re using a lot of money and expending tax resources to protect species that aren’t being protected. The system isn’t working for fish, it’s not working for people and it’s not working for agriculture.”
These reduced surface water allocations – through pure lack of water or by regulatory decision – lead farmers throughout California to withdraw from the only other source they had: groundwater.
Heavy groundwater pumping in 2014 lead to reduced water tables and the drying of domestic and agricultural wells across the state.
According to the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and the UC Davis Agricultural Issues Center, 2014 saw a reduction of 6.6 million acre feet of surface water for agriculture. Studies showed that groundwater pumping made up about 77 percent, or 5.1 million acre feet of this shortfall.
This led to total direct losses of $1.5 billion and an economic hit to the state of about $2.2 billion.
“We can’t continue that,” Wade said.
University of California Farm Advisor Allan Fulton summarized key water resource challenges the almond industry will face in 2015. Depending on how wet the year winds up being, Fulton believes that it will take time for groundwater aquifers to recharge, particularly the farther south one moves in the Central Valley.
While a wet year will be more beneficial to growers, the loss of surface water to environmental uses and the unsustainable pumping practices that even in wet years can see overdraft conditions will create continued challenges for the almond industry.
Using statistics from a variety of sources, Fulton showed that water resources tend to be better in the Sacramento Valley and grow increasingly less reliable as one travels south to Kern County.
Still, he showed that the Sacramento Valley counties of Tehama, Glenn, Colusa, Yolo and Solano are challenged by declining groundwater recharge though growers there enjoy fewer soil salinity issues than are seen in the San Joaquin Valley.
The counties of Butte, Sutter and Yuba tend to have the best groundwater conditions, though they too are seeing declines in water tables. Surface water supplies are relatively more stable in that region, according to Fulton.
Moving south in the state the counties of Fresno and Madera are the most prolific in terms of almond yields, averaging over 3,300 pounds per acre in 2013. Soil salinity issues are more common among growers in the region’s west side as groundwater pumping depths can be greater than 300 feet.
These depths grow to greater than 500 feet in the south San Joaquin Valley counties of Kings, Tulare and Kern, where there is increased competition from dairies for water.
Fulton cautioned growers not to get into a north-south debate with each other and to work together on solutions.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he said.