Sierra Nevada mountains
A low Sierra Nevada snowpack will mean less water available for California farmers this year, and will affect operation of federal and state water projects that capture snowmelt runoff (Photo by California Department of Water Resources)

By Kevin Hecteman
Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with permission from the California Farm
Bureau Federation 

The return of drought to California has been widespread—58% of the state now experiences some level of dryness, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor—with extreme drought concentrated in 4% of the state, primarily in the northwestern region of Siskiyou, Trinity and Humboldt counties.

That’s the region where Jim Morris raises livestock and field crops.

“Most of the hills, lower-elevation hills, the grass is all gone—never really grew this year,” said Morris, who farms near Etna in Siskiyou County.

There was some snow, he said, but it has largely melted.

“Mount Shasta is going to probably be just dirt here in a little while,” Morris said.

To the south, customers of federal and state water projects face reduced water supplies, and one class of water-rights holders may see curtailments as summer approaches.

At a meeting last week, the State Water Resources Control Board warned that water-rights holders with Term 91 clauses could see supplies reduced.

Term 91 applies to water-rights permits issued after 1965 and are junior to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, said Chris Scheuring, a California Farm Bureau Federation water lawyer. As most agricultural water rights are senior to this, they’re unlikely to be affected, he noted.

“I guess it’s a little bit of a reminder that this is one of those dry years, but I don’t think that the state board intends to go any deeper on the list in terms of water rights,” Scheuring said.

The number of water-permit holders subject to Term 91 is small—about 140, according to Diane Riddle, assistant deputy director of water rights with the state water board. The term kicks in when the CVP and SWP need to release stored water to meet salinity standards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“It’s essentially a term that protects the water rights for the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project when there are limited supplies and there are supplementing needs for salinity control and outflow requirements of the delta with previously stored water releases,” Riddle said.

Some of the more recent permits including Term 91 are for rice straw decomposition, she said.

“It’s possible that they wouldn’t be able to do rice-straw decomposition in certain fields, and they’d have to disk or something else,” Riddle said.

In most years, fall flooding for rice straw decomposition also provides large amounts of food and habitat for migrating waterfowl.

The water board may send Term 91 curtailment notices within the next couple of weeks, she said, noting such decisions aren’t made lightly.

“We don’t generally trigger Term 91 unless there’s going to be a prolonged period in which water is unavailable,” Riddle said, adding that it’s too soon to know whether other curtailments will be needed.

Much of the water that will be available remains in the system thanks to the rains of 2019, which left their legacy in the reservoirs serving the state and federal projects.

Lake Oroville behind Oroville Dam, the main State Water Project supply, stood at 84% of average as of Monday, while Shasta Lake, the largest Central Valley Project reservoir, held 92% of average.

There won’t be much snow left to run into the reservoirs this spring, and water released for salmon redds below Shasta Dam won’t be as cold, leading to additional water-management challenges. The Sierra Nevada snowpack held 25% of its historical average water content as of May 7, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Allocations to water contractors have reflected the relative lack of precipitation.

CVP settlement and exchange contractors will see a 75% allocation; agricultural contractors will have access to 15% supplies south of the delta and 50% north of there; Friant Division contractors will receive 55% of Class 1 water. The State Water Project allocation for 2020 stands at 15%.

Scheuring said that, with reservoirs about to help California through this year, more storage is needed—an opinion expressed at the ballot box in 2014, when California voters approved Proposition 1, containing more than $7 billion in bonds to build water infrastructure.

“We know that storage is how we get through the dry years in California,” Scheuring said. “That’s the way we have to operate: We have reservoirs to capture the water when it comes infrequently—infrequently, but in huge volumes. Capturing that water is how we settled the landscape of the American West.”

In Siskiyou County, Morris said low volumes of rain and snow this winter mean people will have to rely on groundwater.

“The biggest concern right now is for trying to find some way to graze livestock,” he said. “Irrigated pasture this year is going to be at a premium, and it’s off to a rough start. Irrigated pasture likes to see some rain over the winter anyway, and we didn’t see that.”

Prospects in the hills don’t look much better.

“It’s going to be a tough feed year, I think,” Morris said, noting that forage crops could be in high demand.

“We have the good fortune in the Scott Valley of having an abundance of water,” Morris said. “It just leaves the valley very quickly. If we can keep the water behind later into the year, there will be enough water for agriculture and fish.”

That means groundwater recharge, surface storage or subsurface storage, he added.

“Water has to slow down in the Scott,” Morris said. “That’s the big thing here. I’m of the opinion, and the hydrologists say, there’s water enough. It’s a timing issue.”

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