Despite the return of Tulare Lake – fed now by rivers swollen with meltwater from a record snowpack that could last into late autumn thanks to unusual periods of cool weather – Tulare County is making plans for when Mother Nature is less generous.
No Rain in May
Things are already returning to the usual dry pattern. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), rainfall in May was 0.4 inches below normal. That makes last month the 54th driest May recorded in the last 129 years, despite 2023 so far being the seventh wettest year for the county record keeping began in 1894.
NOAA data for this April shows no appreciable rainfall in Tulare and Kings counties. The sole exception was 0.1 inches in the foothills community of Lemon Cove. Yet there was no recorded rain there in May. Back in March, Lemon Cove recorded 10.53 inches of rainfall.
Data on May precipitation for the rest of the area is unavailable.
Across California, 23% of the state is still experiencing abnormally dry conditions, mostly in the southern desert areas and in the extreme north. Moderate drought conditions persist in another 4.6% of the state – home to more than 700,000 Californians – representing the tailend of a megadrought unseen here since the 1500s.
The area may see a change in weather, however, as the long-lasting La Niña has finally given way to a weak but particularly warm El Niño in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño conditions are likely to strengthen significantly, the NOAA reported June 8, with a 56% chance of strong El Niño by winter.
Preparing for Future Water Shortages
With the state’s uncertain weather apparently growing more unpredictable, state legislators have in recent years decided to hedge against the water shortages that could become more frequent, harsher and longer-lasting.
Specifically, a new law inked by the governor in September 2021 required a revamping of small, local water suppliers to make plans for future shortfalls. It also requires the county to take a greater role in oversight.
“SB 552 required the county to do a number of things related to drought and water storage shortage contingency planning,” said Denise England, grants and resource manager for the Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA) at the June 12 meeting of the Tulare County Water Commission.
The law makes two specific demands on the county.
“One was to have a drought task force, which we already had,” England said. “We augmented that to include all of the participants that the legislation required.”
The text of SB 552 says each local drought task force must include representatives from local groundwater sustainability agencies, community-
based organizations, local water suppliers and water users. State and local governments must also be represented.
Making a Water Shortage Plan
One of the drought task force’s tasks is aiding in the compilation of a plan for mitigating future water shortages. The aim of SB 552 is ensuring drinking water for all residents during drought periods, and local plans must include identification of at-risk communities and come up with ways of guaranteeing they won’t run permanently dry, as well as ways of supplying water when they do.
Tulare County’s version of a drought and water shortage plan is in the final draft stage.
“We have received back the final draft from the consultant,” England said. “We got it late last week, and we are taking a look just to make sure that all of our changes were in fact incorporated.”
To meet state requirements, the plan has to include consolidation of existing water systems and domestic wells, establishment of drinking water mitigation programs, and creation of emergency and interim drinking water supplies when wells run out. It must also include an analysis of how the plan will be put into action, as well as discussions of how to fund the response.
If it passes muster at the RMA, the plan will go for a vote by county supervisors.
“The final draft, it looks good so far,” England said. “I’m about halfway through my final final review, and then it will come to the Board of Supervisors for approval, probably in mid-July.”
The board is skipping its regular Tuesday morning meeting on July 4. Supervisors will likely take up the issue on either July 11 or July 18.
Upcoming Drought Deadlines
SB 552 also places requirements on small water suppliers and schools. By the start of this year, those small water providers had to install monitors capable of detecting the local groundwater level and join the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network.
By the end of this year, those small providers must install backup power sources to ensure continuous operation. Last year, during an extended period of triple-digit heat, power at the only well in East Orosi failed, leaving residents there without running water for 24 hours.
By the start of 2027, those areas reliant on small water systems must also be provided with at least one backup source of water, preferably by tying into nearby existing water systems, that can supply daily needs. By 2032, all small water providers must install monitors to detect leaks and meters for all consumers.
There must also be adequate water to fight fires.
Well Drilling Requests Drop
So far in 2023, the number of permits for new and expanded wells is down significantly. From January to May 2022, 251 well permits were requested. For the same period this year, only 172 permit requests were filed.
“That may be because of a (lesser) demand or maybe because of flood conditions that folks, drillers, weren’t able to quite get out and do some of the work,” England said. “We will see that probably in the next reporting period.”
It may also be that the rush to beat another proposed change in state water regulations has ended. Already passed by the State Assembly, AB 1563 would require requests for new or expanded wells to be reviewed by groundwater sustainability agencies, ensuring compliance with the regional drought mitigation plans.
By imposing these additional requirements, AB 1563 forces the creation of a state-mandated local permitting program. The bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.
Effects of Drought, Pollution Linger
While the start of the year saw enough rain to end the drought in the South Valley, the problems continue for many communities and households.
East Orosi isn’t the only Tulare County community contending with water scarcity. Tooleville, a small village on the eastern outskirts of Exeter, still depends on tanked-in water for its supply. Wells are also running out in West Goshen, East Porterville, Kettleman City and Tonyville, another small community near Tooleville between Exeter and Lindsay.
To combat the problem, the county is supplying water tanks where wells can’t meet demand.
“There were 18 new tanks installed during the month of May, so although (at the) surface we had a lot of flooding, the drought conditions to groundwater still persist,” England said. “We have 392 tanks overall in the program receiving hauled water.”
The county also provides bottled water to hundreds of other households.
“In the bottled water program there’s just over 1,600 households enrolled, 288 of those are related to drought,” England said. “The remainder are due to contamination issues.”
More Water Law Change in the Works
A state-mandated change in the county-level permitting process for well construction may not be the only alteration in state water law with a potential strong local impact. Making its way through the legislature now is Assembly Bill 1337, which would give the state the power to stop water diversion from rivers by all rights-holders.
When the bill was introduced in April, the news outlet CalMatters called it “the opening salvo of a monumental political and legal war over who controls access to water in California.”
In 2015, when the drought was ravaging the state, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) was rebuffed when it attempted to stop the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District from exercising its right to draw water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Two court decisions found rights established prior to 1914 were still valid, challenging the state’s ability to oversee water issues for certain rights-holders.
AB 1337 is intended to make the SWRCB the ultimate water authority in California, granting it “the necessary authority to curtail pre-1914 water rights and address the gap in the state board’s authority revealed by the court in the series of cases known as the California Water Curtailment Cases.”
Like AB-1563, AB-1337 has also been approved by the Assembly and is now being reviewed by the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. The bill would make unauthorized use or diversion of water a “trespass.” Fines of up to $1,000 per day and $3,500 per acre-foot of water could be imposed on violators.
It also imposes a $3,500 per day fine for diversion of water for unlicensed cannabis cultivation.