Farm Progress

California implements mandatory water rationing

California drought enters its fourth yearSierra snow pack is 5 percent of normalMandatory water rationing calls for 25 percent cutbacks

tfitchette, Associate Editor

April 2, 2015

6 Min Read
<p>California Governor Edmund Brown Jr. attends the April 1 snow survey near South Lake Tahoe where there should be well over five feet of snow on the ground. Current drought conditions gave the governor no&nbsp;choice but to order mandatory water rationing statewide.</p>

A year after nicely asking California residents to restrict their water use, Gov. Edmund Brown, Jr. put some teeth to that call by mandating statewide water restrictions.

The executive order primarily addresses urban users, which until now have only been asked to reduce their water use. The latest action orders urban water districts to cut their use by 25 percent or face stiff penalties by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).

According to SWRCB Chair Felicia Marcus, those fines could be $10,000 per day to local water agencies.

State officials hope to save 1.5 million acre feet of water through the latest action.

The Governor’s order makes the action by the SWRCB mandatory, impacting all potable water used by urban users through Feb. 28, 2016. Just how the water board achieves that will be worked out, according to Marcus.

State officials say the mandatory action was needed because urban residents have largely ignored the call to conserve water.

While some municipalities have shown per-capita reductions in water use over the past year, others have not, Marcus said.

Among a host of provisions in the Governor’s order, the executive action orders the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to immediately consider voluntary crop-idling water transfers and water exchange proposals of one year or less that were already initiated and approved in 2015 by local agencies.

This is the first time in four consecutive years of drought that state officials have required such action against urban water users. Until now, these users have remained largely unscathed by the drought while farmers have borne the brunt of reductions through forced curtailments of irrigation water.

Farming communities

Entire farming communities have been decimated, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross.

According to Ross, over 400,000 acres of farmland in the Central Valley was fallowed last year, leading to the loss of more than 17,000 farmworker jobs with the direct economic impact to the state of over $1.5 billion.

Ross said about 40,000 acres of tree and vine crops were removed in 2014 because there was no irrigation water to sustain them.

The economic losses were enough to knock Fresno County’s agricultural value – typically the highest in the United States – to the number three position behind Tulare and Kern counties because of the loss of income from annual crops not planted in 2013.

Fresno County has a highly diversified crop mix of more than 350 different commodities, some produced nowhere else in the United States.

“This will result in more jobs being lost,” Ross said. “That’s farm and wage income that will not be spent in local, rural communities that are so dependent upon the agricultural community.”

Because growers have already faced severe water cutbacks, the Governor’s latest action moves now at the smallest portion of the allocated water pie – urban users – in an effort to conserve a resource that is in extremely short supply and will not likely improve in the near term.

According to DWR, urban users consume about 10 percent of the state’s allotted water resources in a given year. Agriculture consumes about 40 percent of this water with the balance – a full 50 percent of the state’s allocated water – going for environmental uses.

Critics complain that environmental users of water do not need to meet the same efficiency requirements forced on agricultural and urban users. Part of the Governor’s action aims at ensuring adequate water supplies to meet Endangered Species Act requirements.

The executive order signed April 1 (no fooling!) largely adds reporting procedures to agricultural water districts with more than 10,000 irrigated acres. The change here is that districts with more than 25,000 acres were initially required to provide DWR with Agricultural Water Management Plans. Now the smaller districts must file reports.

Those plans, according to DWR Director Mark Cowin, report how agricultural water districts will strike supply and demand balances during drought conditions. The Governor’s action also stipulates that districts look back to 2013 and report, to the extent data are available, supply and demand figures.

The Governor’s action requires DWR submit these reports to the State Water Resources Control Board within a month of their receipt by DWR.

The executive order does not change surface water allocations to growers, which on April 1 remained zero percent for federal Central Valley Project water users and 20 percent for those who receive their surface water from the State Water Project.

According to Cowin, the state’s 20 percent allocation will likely be the final allocation by the state.

California snow survey

California’s April 1 snow survey, which typically sets the stage for water allocations statewide by state and federal water managers, happened rather quickly at Phillips Station near South Lake Tahoe.

Instead of snowshoes and poles, state officials – including Gov. Brown – dressed comfortably for warmer weather as they crunched through dry grass at the 6,800-foot elevation site.

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This is the first time since measurements began at Phillips Station in 1941 that the site was completely void of snow, according to DWR. It’s likely the first time ever that a sitting governor has attended a snow survey, according to Cowin.

The most recent snow survey revealed a California snowpack at about 5 percent of normal. For the Phillips Station site, there should be over 66 inches of snow on the ground on April 1.

This year there was none.

California’s snowpack should provide about 15 million acre feet of water storage for the state’s reservoirs. Because the snowpack is not there (the statewide April 1 survey showed a scant 5 percent of normal ), there will be no runoff added to on-stream storage sites or moved by pump to off-stream sites including the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos.

“We are confined to the water that we have in storage around the state and our continued reliance upon groundwater to meet our needs this year for our cities and farms,” Cowin said.

He adds that state officials will determine in April whether to move forward with constructing physical barriers in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Delta region to hold back salt water from entering the region’s fresh-water channels.

Until now, officials have simply ramped up flows from reservoirs including Shasta, Oroville and New Melones to prevent salt water intrusion deep into the Delta. Some of those areas contain pumps used by cities to extract fresh water for urban uses.

Over the past year, Marcus and others have staunchly defended those pulse flows to protect city pumping facilities from salt water intrusion.

Still of concern to some officials is the declining populations of protected fish species, including two species of smelt plus winter runs of Chinook salmon.

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said recent surveys revealed the lowest-ever populations of Delta Smelt and the second-lowest populations ever of Longfin Smelt that the agency has seen in a half-century of studies.

Bonham said the winter run Chinook salmon population saw a 95 percent mortality of young egg and fry in 2014. Smelt populations are nearly gone as well.

“In short, I think we’ve seen a collapse in our natural winter run spawning stock,” Bonham said.

About the Author(s)


Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

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