La Niña looms in Pacific as new water year begins

California’s water bucket is not even half full as the state enters the 2022 water year, which began Oct. 1.

Two years of drought has depleted the state’s surface and groundwater supplies, and weather forecasters predict a La Niña climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean, which has brought drought conditions in the past.

California State Climatologist Michael Anderson said a wet storm is expected in the state this week, and if this is followed by additional storms in the next month, “the precipitation would provide much-needed moisture to our very dry soils.” The lack of moisture in the soil last winter and spring contributed to the decrease in runoff from snowmelt because it was absorbed by the very dry soils, he said.

“Model estimates by (United States Geological Survey) scientists suggest 140% of average precipitation would be needed just to generate average runoff,” Anderson said. “It is important to get as much benefit out of these events to mitigate against the expected seasonal shortcomings.”

An uncertain water supply for the coming year has farmers, water managers and water officials planning for all scenarios.

Kern County almond farmer Jenny Holtermann, who grows almonds in water districts served by the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, said her farm was affected by drought this year. She said her water allocation from the CVP was 15% and nothing from the SWP, adding that the farm had to rely on groundwater in some orchards.

“Our family farm had to make the difficult decisions to remove acres this year. The trees were at a downward yield, but if water was available, we most likely would have been able to have a few more years of production,” Holtermann said. “With limited water availability, it made more sense to remove the acres now. We will fallow the land for a year and hope to replant in fall in 2022 if the water outlook appears more promising.”

Looking at the possibility of another dry year, Holtermann suggested that farmers will need to be even more innovative and efficient.

“In our area, many farmers are turning to water banking projects on their own farms by using tile drain systems. These projects will help farmers in water districts that do have access to water supplies during the winter months, where we can store the water for use during the summer,” Holtermann said. “As much banking we can do when there is rain or runoff, the better off we will be.”

Jeanine Jones, California Department of Water Resources drought manager and interstate resources manager, said that state water agencies are doing a lot of contingency planning for potentially a very dry year.

“We’ve learned a lot from past droughts, and we are doing more on the preparedness side,” Jones said. “The department has been reaching out to the water contractors and inquiring about their minimum health and safety needs, which would be for residential use.”

Jones noted that the 2021 water year was the second-driest in terms of statewide precipitation, with 1924 being the driest year. Jones said she expects the SWP and CVP water projects will have low water allocations for water contractors. The SWP initial allocation, which is made on Dec. 1, will likely be very low, she said, because it is based on water available now. In discussing the SWP reservoirs, she said, “Oroville is at a record low storage and San Luis is not far behind in terms of record low.” The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation makes its initial allocation for the CVP in late February.

“We’re on par with 1976-77. In 1977, we ended up the water year at 36% of statewide reservoir storage. Sept. 30, we ended up with about 60% of statewide reservoir storage, so clearly we’re much better off,” Jones said.

In terms of planning for 2022 for his district, Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District No. 108, a Sacramento River settlement contractor, said he is planning for various possible water scenarios.

“We are doing a budget as if we wouldn’t have water, and a budget as if we would have water. We’re looking at how can you creatively operate the system under different scenarios,” said Bair, whose district received 65% of its water supply this year from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and had to fallow farmland. “A lot of our expertise is around salmon, and so we’ve been looking at what the state has proposed and checking whether that’s appropriate and if there’s anything that can be done.”

In discussing the state’s operational approach of prioritizing water for public health and safety, followed by fisheries needs and lastly, water for consumptive use, Bair said, “The state needs to be thinking about all scenarios.”

“What the state hasn’t done a good job of addressing is: What if there isn’t enough water, period? What if there isn’t enough for the fishery?” Bair said. “The fisheries (agencies) are projecting that we’re going to have a million out-migrating winter juvenile salmon. It’s not a good year, but it’s not the kind of thing that we have to sacrifice the Sacramento Valley for.”

Farther north, Siskiyou County farmer and rancher Jim Morris farms with water diverted from the Scott River, and he said he remains concerned about the coming year and lifting of curtailments. The Scott River and Shasta River are part of the Klamath River watershed, which is one of several watersheds in the state that faces water rights curtailments adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board this year.

“If we stay curtailed and they don’t let us turn on, we don’t really have any good outcome,” Morris said, adding that Scott River farmers are working with the state on a voluntary agreement to reduce water use in the coming year by 30% (Shasta River by 15%). “We have a week of what looks like pretty wet weather ahead of us, and that’s what it’s going to take to get the Scott (River) running again.”

Specific to when and how water curtailments would be lifted, Diane Riddle, State Water Resources Control Board assistant deputy director of the division of water rights, said board staff is tracking and evaluating hydrologic conditions.

“For the Bay-Delta watershed, we lifted some curtailments since September, and we’ve continued to make adjustments in response to precipitation events. That’s going on on a regular basis,” Riddle said. “It may be at some point we will reach the threshold in which curtailments are not needed for a period of time if we get a good amount of precipitation events.”

A full lifting of curtailments will happen, Riddle said, “when there’s excess flow in the system and there’s water available for all. It could be a temporary lifting that would apply for a couple of months and then a reimposition of curtailments later in the season.”

“We’re preparing ourselves for whatever conditions might materialize. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Riddle said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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