California farmers challenged as water supply dwindles
Water regulators have cut the amount that can be taken from lakes, rivers and streams. Farmers who ordinarily get that water either have to forgo planting some of their fields, or pump water from the ground, or a combination of the two.
Farmers dependent on wells are also affected. The soil gets drier and drier, and more and more water has to be pumped to keep crops alive.
Neither the state nor the federal water projects are delivering water for agriculture from Northern California to south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Some water is flowing through the delta for the health and safety of city dwellers, but that’s it. Some San Joaquin farms are getting water that was already in the reservoirs down there, and there have been some water transfers from north state water districts.
But even with most north state water staying up here, there have still been cutbacks. In some cases the cuts haven’t been as severe, as some local irrigation districts have very old and very strong water rights that limit how much their supply can be cut in dry years.
But other newer local water agencies — like the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority — have been cut off completely, just like districts in the south.
Then in June, the state reported that 685,000 acre-feet of snowmelt it had expected to flow into reservoirs, had instead soaking into the parched soil in the mountains or evaporated in the extreme heat.
“This is a mess,” said Western Canal District General Manager Ted Trimble. “We’ve never been in a place like this before.”
With some exceptions, the federal Central Valley Project has cut off all water to irrigation districts that don’t have rights dating back to before 1914. It has also cut water deliveries to cities and industry to 55 percent of what was desired.
The state water project, meanwhile, has cut everyone to 5 percent of the water they want.
The state project serves cities primarily, providing water to 27 million people, and irrigation water for just 750,000 acres. The federal project is just the opposite, in an average year delivering 5 million acre-feet to 3 million acres of farms. It only delivers 600,000 acre-feet to cities and industry.
An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre of land a foot deep. That’s just under 326,000 gallons.
In addition, the state Water Resources Control Board sent notices earlier in June to 4,300 water users in the Central Valley watershed to stop diverting water from rivers and streams. “The water supply …” the notice reads, “is insufficient to support lawful diversion under any post-1914 appropriative water right.”
There is no enforcement procedure in place yet, but the notice warns there could be fines of $1,000 a day and $2,500 per acre-foot.
1914 is the year the state Water Commission was formed. Over the years it has become the Water Resources Control Board.
Not all the water users on the list are farmers. There’s a Girl Scout Council. Cal Fire also got a few of the notices.
The city of Chico got one, for the One-Mile Dam, which creates Sycamore Pool. “We don’t really divert water,” said Parks and National Resources Manager Linda Herman. “It flows over the dam, and when we clean the pool on Thursdays, it still flows underneath.”
Still, she was going to have to contact the Water Board. A process was laid out in the notice for doing that.
The Paradise Irrigation District also was notified, based on the district’s reservoirs. But since the cutoff affects water being diverted into a reservoir rather than out of one, there’s ample water supply for the town.
The water districts
Despite the special water rights some of the large irrigation districts in the area have, most of them have had their supply cut by 50 percent. Two have only been cut by 25 percent — the Western Canal District in Butte County west of the Thermalito Afterbay, and the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, west of the Sacramento River, from Hamilton City south to beyond Williams.
In Butte County, the cuts amount to more than 200,000 acre-feet of water.
Trimble, the Western Canal District manager, said the rice growers in his district are getting 3.5 acre-feet of water per acre this year. “That gets them pretty close,” he said, saying most of the district has very heavy soil that holds water well.
There are areas that require as much as 6 acre-feet per acre to produce rice. The Richvale Irrigation District is delivering 2.8 acre-feet per acre, and the district’s letter to its growers indicates that’s about half of what’s needed.
How is the shortage being made up? There are two ways: pumping groundwater or fallowing land.
County Water and Resource Conservation Director Paul Gosselin said the county has seen “a pretty good increase in pumping,” as is typical in drought. During the 2013-14 drought, annual groundwater usage climbed from the approximately 400,000 acre-feet that is normal, to about 500,000 acre-feet.
Gosselin said more groundwater may be pumped this year, as the situation turned from bad to worse very quickly, after growers had already begun planting.
There is a good amount of fallowing going on as well. Carl Hoff of the Butte County Rice Growers Association, said 20-25 percent of the rice lands in the state are being fallowed.
That also means the harvest will be down by 20-25 percent. That’s significant to the economy locally, as the value of the Butte County rice crop in 2019 was $166.1 million. In Glenn County, it was worth $128.7 million. There are also secondary benefits to the economy in terms of jobs, equipment and supply purchases.
Jim Morris of the California Rice Commission couldn’t say if the economic hit would match the 20 percent reduction in acreage. “There’s a lot of factors in play.” Rice prices have been strong, he said, partially due to the pandemic which had more people cooking and eating at home.
Rice is an international commodity, and what happens halfway around the world can impact the price of rice grown here.
Across the river from Butte County, growers in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District are fallowing 32,000 acres of the 140,000 acres in the district that are normally irrigated. But Glenn-Colusa is also pumping, about 35,000 acre-feet worth.
General Manager Thad Bettner said the district doesn’t normally pump any groundwater. “It’s expensive, and we want to keep the aquifer healthy.” He said some growers with the district have their own wells, and normally pump about 8,000 acre-feet a year.
But this year, the Water Resources Control Board wanted to keep at least 1.25 million acre-feet in Shasta Lake by the end of the irrigation season, to provide cool water for winter-run chinook salmon that spawn in the Sacramento River.
The districts along the river were instructed to cut their draw by 60,000 acre-feet. Glenn-Coulsa’s share of that was 25,000 acre-feet, and that’s being made up with groundwater pumping.
The district is also transfering 10,000 acre-feet to the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, which had its federally-supplied water cut off entirely. Again, Glenn-Colusa will pump to replace that.
The district is also transferring 45,000 acre-feet of water to water agencies in Santa Clara County and the San Joaquin Valley. That water is being made available by fallowing land.
Glenn-Colusa is the largest district north of the delta, and it is subject to a lot of critical scrutiny. But the 35,000 acre-feet it is pumping this year seems petty compared to the 500,000 acre-feet likely to pumped in Butte County.
“Our pumping program is small,” said Bettner. “It’s not going to break the system. If the system breaks it’s because of what’s happening elsewhere.”
Butte County has two entirely different agricultural zones. In the southwest county and along parts of the Sacramento River, irrigation districts deliver surface water to large numbers of farmers. In the northwest, individual growers rely on their own separate wells.
Groundwater use had not been regulated by the state until the 2013-14 drought. Brutal pursuit of groundwater to make up for lost surface water prompted passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
The areas of the state that use groundwater have been divided up into “subbasins,” and each is required to come up with a plan to manage groundwater use in a way that is sustainable. That work is underway now.
In Butte County, the well-dependent area was put in what’s called the Vina Subbasin. It includes the city of Chico and Durham.
The area between the Feather and Sacramento rivers served by irrigation districts is in the Butte Subbasin. There’s a third subbasin along the east side of the Feather River and including Thermalito, that’s called Wyandotte Creek.
As might be expected, the Vina Subbasin takes the biggest piece of the groundwater used in the county. In an average year about 250,000 acre-feet is pumped in the Vina area, compared to about 150,000 acre-feet elsewhere in the county, according to data developed by the county Water and Resource Conservation Department.
Most of that goes to water the almond and walnut trees that are the primary crop in the Vina area. Chico’s water use is less than 20,000 acre-feet per year, according to the California Water Service Company’s 2020 water quality report for the Chico Division..
In dry and critically dry years, water use in the county has jumped about 100,000 acre-feet. Part of that was growers in the southern water districts supplementing reduced surface water supplies, but more than 80,000 acre-feet of the increase happened in the Vina Subbasin, according to the county’s figures.
Gosselin explains that soil moisture declines during drought, and has to replaced. “Growers are trying to keep their crops alive. This is what happens during drought.”
The dependence on wells in the Vina Subasin has will make it difficult to meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Gosselin said that while the numbers are preliminary, it looks like the area will either have to cut the amount pumped by about 15,000 acre-feet, or find a new source for that much water.
The subbasins served by irrigation districts have less of a groundwater problem. They aren’t pumping as much, and as surface water soaks into the soil, the water table is refreshed. Bettner said Glenn-Colusa estimates it recharges the soil beneath the district to the tune of about 120,000 acre-feet in an average year.
The environmental view
Additional groundwater pumping can do a lot of harm, said Barbara Vlamis of Aqua Alliance, but she doesn’t really blame growers. She blames the state for giving them unrealistic expectations.
“The state of California does not have a backbone,” she said, “and has allocated five times more water than is available.” That’s according to a UC Davis study in 2014.
“The state has given growers very distorted views what their potential is.”
And the state also can’t say no, and tries to stretch a limited resource so much that everyone suffers.
“We live in a system that’s broken, then act surprised when there’s no water.”
Aqua Alliance is dedicated to protecting Northern California’s watershed, so it’s not surprising she objects to water transfers south.
“You should live in your watershed. You should grow the crops that you can with the water you have.”
“Transferring water is not a solution. You send water from a place like here that has a fairly healthy water system, to a desert like Fresno, all you’re going to do is create two deserts.”
She also has concerns about local rice growers using groundwater to make up for surface water cuts, rather than fallowing. He said that could harm people with no option but using their wells.
Ultimately, the state has to review water claims, and “give the public a realistic view of what’s possible.”
Winter, and beyond
Typically, rice growers flood their fields after harvest, to help break down rice straw, and also to provide habitat for the millions of arctic birds that migrate here for the winter.
That might not happen this year. Western Canal’s Trimble said he didn’t know if water would be available. “We’d like to get some ground flooded for the Pacific Flyway, but we don’t know how low (Lake Oroville) is going to go.”
Morris, of the Rice Commission said the industry really wants to flood some fields, because the habitat is critically important, especially in this dry year. “The birds have so few options,” he said.
Across the river, Glenn-Colusa will not be flooding fields this winter. “Our priority,” said Bettner, “is to restore the supply in Shasta Lake.” The district is working with bird groups, however on options, like using groundwater for habitat.
There is agreement however, that if there’s another dry winter, 2022 will be horrible.
“As bad as this year is going to get — and we know it’s going to be bad — we need to be prepared.” Gosselin said, “because if there’s another dry winter we’re in uncharted waters.”
He said the Board of Supervisors has added $50,000 to his department’s budget for analysis of the drought’s impact. It will allow tracking of reports of dry wells and groundwater levels.
But another dry year might be beyond what can be prepared for. Western Canal’s Trimble said the district’s contract with the state limits the amount that can be cut to 75,000 acre-feet.
“But if it’s not in the lake and they can’t do it? I don’t know. I see us having multiple lengthy conversations.”
“If it’s another dry year, everyone’s going to lose,” said Trimble. “Ag, urban, the environment, we’re all going to be losers.”