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Calif. snowpack rallies, but allocations still low

State exceeds normal totals for second straight season.

Tim Hearden, Western Farm Press

April 5, 2024

4 Min Read
Gov. Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom throws a snowball during the Department of Water Resources' manual snow survey April 2 at Phillips Station near Lake Tahoe.Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

Late-winter storms helped California exceed its normal snowpack levels for the second straight year, but many of the state’s farmers are still set to receive less than half their requested water allocations this season.

The state Department of Water Resources’ latest manual survey April 2 at Phillips Station near Lake Tahoe recorded 64 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 27.5 inches, which is 113% of average for the location.

Readings from 130 electronic gauges throughout California showed the statewide snowpack at 110% of its April 1 average, a significant improvement over the 28% of average measured in January.

Yet after major storms in March left an abundant snowpack and full reservoirs, the State Water Project’s allocation forecast was only raised to 30% from 15% of requests, and Central Valley Project irrigators south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta will only get 35% of their contract total.

“California has had two years of relatively positive water conditions, but that is no reason to let our guard down now,” state climatologist Michael Anderson told reporters. “With three record-setting mult-year droughts in the last 15 years and warmer temperatures, a well above-average snowpack is needed to reach average runoff.

Related:Bankruptcies, lower ag land values mark new Calif. chapter

“The wild swings from dry to wet that make up today’s water years make it important to maintain conservation while managing the runoff we do receive,” he said.

Although statewide reservoirs began April at 116% of average, officials say several factors could challenge the spring runoff, including soot and ash from burn scars that accelerate snowmelt. Also, long-range forecasts called for temperatures to warm up this spring as El Nino oceanic conditions recede.

Decision time

The latest allocations come as growers are having to make spring planting decisions, notes the California Farm Bureau. Rising production costs and water supply uncertainty are weighing on growers whose crop options narrowed as tomato canneries have reduced their contracted acres because of a surplus of tomatoes.

Sunflowers may not be an option, as two contractors – Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Syngenta – recently ended their hybrid sunflower seed programs in the state, according to the Farm Bureau. Also, some growers that have pulled out nut trees because of lower prices may transition to annual crops, increasing the competition for acreage, the CFB notes.

Some growers in California will get relatively ample water supplies. CVP contractors north of the Delta will get their full allocations, while Friant Division irrigators will get 65% of their requested Class 1 supplies. The first 800,000 acre-feet of available water from the Millerton Reservoir on the upper San Joaquin River is considered Class 1.

Related:Western storms to give way to warm spring

In the Fresno Irrigation District, farmers began scheduling their surface irrigation deliveries on April 1. Deliveries are expected into July, according to FID General Manager Bill Stretch.

“We wanted to make this decision as early as possible to help our agricultural users make informed decisions,” Stretch said in a statement.

Much of the district’s water comes from the Kings River watershed, which this year is running behind last year’s record-setting season. Carryover water in Pine Flat Reservoir aided this year’s delivery estimates.

The revised allocations were based on snow survey measurements and data up until March 1 and spring runoff forecasts outlined March 8, according to the DWR. Further allocation increases are possible based on the April 1 readings and spring conditions, state and federal officials say.

State Water Project regulators say they’ve focused on maximizing the capture and storage of stormwater, increasing storage by 630,000 acre-feet at Lake Oroville and by 150,000 acre-feet at San Luis Reservoir since Jan. 1. However, the ability to move water south has been hampered by pumping restrictions in the Delta meant to protect threatened and endangered fish, they say.

Elsewhere in the West

While California’s snowpack rallied in March, snow drought conditions persisted elsewhere in the West, including in Washington, northern Idaho, Montana and much of northern Wyoming, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. Some stations in the region are reporting record-low snow-water equivalents.

The active March storm track did help the upper Colorado River basin, which saw its second consecutive year with above-normal snow-water equivalent on April 1, according to NIDIS. Snowpack in the basin is critical for inflows into Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

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