CIRS Blog about Rural California

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California, which had one of its wettest years ever in 2016-17, declared a drought emergency in January 2014 and ended it in April 2017. Over 30 inches of rain fell in parts of the Central Valley that normally receive less than 20 inches, and some Sierra mountain areas received over 60 feet of snow.

Instead of worrying about whether there would be enough water for summer irrigation, many water managers worried about having enough room in dams and reservoirs to prevent flooding. The water content of the Sierra snowpack, which normally peaks in April, was over 160 percent of average in April 2017, compared to five percent of average in April 2015. In 1983, the April Sierra snowpack had a water content that was over 200 percent of average.

California normally uses about 33 million acre feet of water, including 26 million acre feet for farming and nine million acre feet for consumers and industry. Among urban residents, half of water is used for lawns and landscaping.

In normal rain years, about 38 percent of the water used for agricultural irrigation is groundwater. During drought years, less surface water is conveyed via dams and canals, and groundwater is 60 percent of agricultural irrigation water. Land often subsides as water is pumped from underground, falling 50 feet or more in many areas of the San Joaquin Valley during the 2012-16 drought.

California's largest dams are Lake Shasta, operated by the federal government, and Lake Oroville, operated by the state government. With water rushing in, Lake Oroville's spillway was opened February 7, 2017, and a gash appeared that forced a brief evacuation of almost 200,000 residents living below the 770-foot high dam.

California has 1,400 dams and 13,000 miles of levees to keep water in rivers and to prevent the flooding of islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta. By one estimate, up to $50 billion is needed to repair federal and state dams and levies to ensure that they can withstand heavier winter rains.

The dam and levee system faces another threat: climate change. If global warming means that more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow during the winter months, dams that were built primarily to collect snow melt for summer irrigation could be forced to release rain water in winter to prevent floods.

In response to more water flowing into the ocean in 2016-17, California plans three new storage projects: Sites Reservoir to store 1.8 million acre feet, Temperance Flat to store 1.3 million acre feet, and raising the 602-foot high Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet to increase its capacity by 634,000 acre feet.

Most new water storage facilities are north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, raising the challenge of moving more water through or around the Delta while protecting fish. The state's plans to build $15.5 billion twin, 30-mile-long tunnels beneath the delta are moving very slowly.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced in March 2017 that Sacramento Valley and Friant customers can expect 100 percent of their water allocation in 2017, but Central Valley Project customers could expect at least 65 percent and perhaps 80 percent. Westlands Water District, the largest U.S. agricultural water district, called for 100 percent of CVP water deliveries.

The 350-square mile Salton Sea is California's largest lake. Created in the early 1900s when canals bringing water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley overflowed for two years, the Salton Sea reached its heyday in the 1950s, when it was the playground of the Hollywood elite. Since then, evaporation has increased salt levels and shrunk the Salton Sea, killing fish and allowing fine dust to circulate and threatening 400 species of migrating birds. A $9.6 billion revitalization plan has not been implemented.

This post was published in the most recent Rural Migration News from April 2017.

Rural Migration News summarizes the most important migration-related issues affecting agriculture and rural America. Topics are grouped by category: Rural America, Farm Workers, Immigration, Other and Resources.

 

There are two editions of Rural Migration News. The paper edition has about 10,000 words and the email version about 20,000 words.

 

Distribution is by email. If you wish to subscribe, send your email address to ruralmigrationnews-subscribe [at} primal.ucdavis.edu. Current and back issues may be accessed at http://migration.ucdavis.edu.

 

The paper edition is available by mail for $30 domestic and $50 foreign for one year and $55 and $95 for a two-year subscription. Make checks payable to Migration Dialogue and send to: Philip Martin, Department of Ag and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, California 95616 USA.

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With California’s reservoirs overflowing, it’s official: an end to the five-year drought is in sight. A year ago, 90 percent of California was in some state of drought; today that number is 20 percent and falling.

But when it rains, it pours, and after some of the driest years on record, the “Pineapple Express” has delivered the wettest winter in recent history. After years of water restrictions, dry fields, and general uncertainty, having so much rain all at once has been a mixed blessing for farmers. It has come with a different set of challenges and complications, from flooded fields to sluggish farmers market sales.

Although farmers market shoppers are already seeing early signs of spring, such as green garlic and a healthy crop of asparagus, the season may come later than we’ve all become accustomed to in recent drought-stricken years.

massa sheep rain

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday quietly signed and bequeathed to President-elect Donald Trump a massive infrastructure bill designed to control floods, fund dams and deliver more water to farmers in California's Central Valley.

While attempting to mollify critics’ concerns over potential harm to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Obama signed the $12 billion bill in a distinctly low-key act. The still-controversial California provisions were wrapped inside a package stuffed with politically popular projects, ranging from Sacramento-area levees to clean-water aid for beleaguered Flint, Michigan.

“It authorizes vital water projects across the country to restore watersheds, improve waterways and flood control, and improve drinking water infrastructure,” Obama stated, adding that “help for Flint is a priority for this administration.”

Dubbed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, the bill passed both House and Senate by veto-proof margins following years of maneuvering and debate. Obama’s signature was never really in doubt, though administration officials had previously resisted some of the specific California provisions.

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Labor 

California's labor force in summer 2016 was 19.1 million, including 18.1 million who were employed. Los Angeles County has a labor force of five million, followed by 1.6 million each in Orange and San Diego counties, and almost one million each in Riverside and San Bernardino countries, that is, the five major southern California counties have almost 55 percent of the state's labor force.

About 16.5 million California workers are employed in nonfarm wage and salary jobs; there are 430,000 hired farm workers. Four sectors include two-thirds of the state's wage and salary workers: trade, three million, followed by professional and business services, education and health services, and government, which each employ 2.5 million.

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When state legislators return to Sacramento this week, climate change will be at the top of their agenda. Still pending are finalization of the state’s climate change investments for the coming year and, most important, setting the road map for climate change policy in California beyond the year 2020.

For California agriculture, these decisions will impact whether or not there are resources available for the state’s farmers and ranchers to address a changing climate. Given the latest agriculture and climate change news of on-going drought impacts and rising temperatures hurting some crops, farmers and ranchers are weighing in, calling for support for programs like the Healthy Soils Initiative.

As we reported back in June, the FY 2016-17 budget was finalized without the legislature and Governor deciding how the state would invest billions in cap-and-trade revenues to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over $100 million in proposed funding is on the line for California farmers and ranchers to reduce water use and save on energy, improve soil management and store more carbon in agricultural soils, and reduce potent greenhouse gases like methane.

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California had a "normal" water year in 2010-11 and again in 2015-16. Droughts reduced the availability of water for the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 crop years. However, farm sales climbed during the drought years, from $43 billion in 2011 to $47 billion in 2012 to $51 billion in 2013 and $54 billion in 2014. Sales in 2015 are expected to set another record.

The reason that farm sales rose even as the availability of water fell from the long-run average of 50 million acre-feet to a low of 31 million for the 2014 crop year was that farmers switched scarce and expensive water from low-value and water-intensive crops such as alfalfa to more valuable crops such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. About 500,000 acres were fallowed in 2014 and 2015, usually land that would normally be used to produce low-value field crops, and farmers pumped ground water to substitute for less surface water.

Monterey County, the nation's salad bowl, had farm sales of $4.5 billion in 2014, led by leaf lettuce worth $775 million, strawberries worth $709 million, and head lettuce worth $651 million. Vegetable crops were worth $3.1 billion and fruit crops $1 billion. A Farmworker Advisory Committee meets quarterly with the Agriculture Commissioner's office to discuss labor issues.

California is projected to have a record crop of table grapes in 2016, some 117 million 19-pound boxes worth almost $2 billion. The state has 100,000 acres of table grapes, and the Scarlet Royal and Autumn King varieties are replacing Thompson seedless, Crimson seedless and Red Globe varieties. Autumn King can generate 2,000 boxes an acre, compared with 1,000 boxes from an acre of Thompson seedless. A third of the state's table grapes are exported.

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The 2015-16 water year was close to normal; the state's 154 major reservoirs held almost 22 million acre-feet of water on April 1, 2016, more than 85 percent of normal. Federal and state farm water contractors are likely to get half or more of the water that they want. Each water district contracts for a specific share of the surface water available to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and CVP and SWP managers provide a percentage of each district's contracted water based on availability.

The California water system accumulates water as snow in northern California mountains and moves the water south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta as the snow melts in summer. However, pumping water from the delta into the aqueduct that moves water south is often restricted to preserve juvenile fish that can be sucked into the pumps.

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WASHINGTON —Five years into California’s latest drought, a major water bill compromise can seem as far away as ever.

The perennial conflict, often summed up as fish vs. farms, subtly surfaced again Tuesday at a key Senate hearing. A Western growers’ advocate pleaded for relief, a Trout Unlimited leader urged caution and lawmakers insisted on optimism while conceding the tough road ahead.

“This bill is the product of two years of work (and) 28 drafts,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., adding that her legislation “can produce real water in a manner consistent with the Endangered Species Act.”

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California’s two Democratic senators remain somewhat out of sync over proposed water legislation, underscoring its ambiguous future on the eve of a big hearing.

Four months after Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s introduction of her latest California water package, Sen. Barbara Boxer is still evaluating the 185-page bill. Her wait-and-see attitude hints at complex undercurrents, as she supports some parts of Feinstein’s bill while seeking more feedback about other parts. 

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Westside farmers got dismal news April 1 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced a 5 percent water allocation for 2016.

Farmers say the paltry allocation will mean thousands of acres in one of the nation’s most productive farming regions will continue to be fallowed.

“This is going to hurt,” said Sal Parra, a westside grower who farms various crops. “We have already fallowed about 5,000 acres and cut back our workers’ hours. It’s like we can’t get ahead.”

The San Joaquin Valley, especially the westside, has been hit especially hard by a four-year drought. In the sprawling Westlands Water District, officials say at least 200,000 acres will not be farmed because of a lack of water.

Over the last two years, farmers in Westlands have received a zero water allocation from the Central Valley Project – the system that supplies water to farmers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

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WASHINGTON —The White House on Tuesday unveiled several billion dollars’ worth of corporate commitments to water research and development during a high-level summit.

Pegged to World Water Day, the summit was intended to draw attention to specific state and corporate pledges as well as new Obama administration initiatives prompted in part by Western states’ drought and the Flint, Michigan, drinking water scandal.

The corporate promises include a commitment by GE to invest $500 million over the next decade on water and reuse technologies, and a pledge by San Francisco-based Ultra Capital to invest $1.5 billion in decentralized “water management solutions.”

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WASHINGTON — The El Niño storms drenching California won’t suffice to solve the state’s drought and won’t permanently save the Central Valley’s vulnerable salmon, federal scientists are cautioning.

 

In an apolitical assessment that comes amid a highly political time, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts stress that this year’s El Niño bounty is both useful and limited. It might well be followed, moreover, by a swing back to a different kind of weather complication called La Niña. 

 

Not all water demands are going to be met, 100 percent, by the recovery we’re seeing relative to the last four years,” NOAA research meteorologist Martin Hoerling said Wednesday in a news briefing. “There are systemic issues with water supply that go beyond precipitation in any given year.”

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Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday relaunched a big California water bill, in what might be cast as the triumph of hope over experience.

 

Unveiling her third proposal in the past two years for ways to divide California’s water supply among many competing interests, Feinstein packaged her latest 184-page measure as a reasonable compromise that draws the best from past Capitol Hill efforts.

“Drafting this bill has been difficult, probably the hardest bill I’ve worked on in my 23 years in the Senate,” Feinstein said. “But it’s important, and that’s why we’ve been working so hard, holding dozens and dozens of meetings and revising the bill over and over again.”

As part of the bill’s unveiling, Feinstein disclosed words of encouragement from parties who usually are on opposite sides of the water battle, including Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and water agencies that serve agricultural interests, including the South Valley Water Association, the Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency.

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California endured its fourth year of drought in 2015, but farm sales appear headed for another record. Water was shifted from low-value crops such as alfalfa to higher-value nuts, and prices for many farm commodities were strong.

California agriculture "normally" uses about 33 million acre feet of water. In 2015, agriculture used 30 million acre feet. Two-thirds of the nine million fewer acre feet of surface water available in 2015 was replaced with groundwater pumped from underground aquifers. Groundwater is normally 40 percent of the water used by agriculture, and 60 percent in dry years.

The water in underground aquifers accumulated over centuries, and cannot be replaced quickly. California in 2014 became the last western state to regulate groundwater pumping, enacting laws that created local groundwater sustainability agencies to register private wells, monitor the water-measuring devices that must be attached to pumps, and regulate groundwater pumping. The agencies are financed by fees charged to farmers and other water users.

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Washington -- The now-distant December of 1988 was a big month for California water lawsuits that would last a generation and eventually land in Congress’ lap, where their ripples linger to this day.

Each of the two major lawsuits, introduced within weeks of each other 27 years ago, offers enduring lessons – in law, in politics and in the long, long time it takes to get things done in Washington.

“Nothing is easy around here,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Jan. 13. “Not even a motherhood resolution is easy.”

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Kingsburg cherry farmer Allen Jackson laments last season’s paltry harvest. Dry and warmer than normal temperatures contributed to fewer cherries and less revenue. 

 

“There were some areas where there wasn’t enough fruit on the tree to even try picking it,” said Jackson, who grows 11 varieties of cherries. “But things are looking much better now.”

 

Jackson and other tree fruit farmers are welcoming the return of cooler daytime temperatures and foggy weather – staples of San Joaquin Valley winters and two factors needed for good fruit development.

 

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Farmers are no strangers to struggle or drought. But this four-year drought is different than others, they say. It’s more widespread, touching nearly everyone who turns on the tap or starts an irrigation pump.

This past summer, wells dried up and farmland sat idle. The drought also came to mean that life on the farm has likely changed forever.

“In the early years when we went through a drought, we tended to say that this too shall pass,” said Richard Waycott, president of the Almond Board of California in Modesto. “But there is a different consciousness now. People are looking at the future very differently.”

Farmers talk of a new reality – one in which droughts are more of the rule than the exception, and water availability, both above and below ground, becomes less certain.

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WASHINGTON -- Angry California Republicans threw in the towel late Thursday, conceding that a California water bill that had divided the state was dead for the year.

 

In a remarkably acrimonious ending to negotiations that once seemed close to bearing fruit, GOP House members acknowledged the bill’s failure while putting the blame squarely on California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

“It’s dead, unfortunately,” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said in an interview Thursday afternoon, adding in a later statement that “our good faith negotiations came to naught.”

The utter collapse of negotiations means a California water package that in its latest manifestation spanned 92 pages will not be slipped into a much larger, much-pass omnibus federal spending package needed to keep the federal government open. If legislative efforts are revived, they will come in the new year.

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Rose Marie Burroughs, along with her husband Ward and three of their children, organically farm in Merced County. Their products are branded under Burroughs Family Farms, and include the ABC’s of organics: almonds, beef, chickens, dairy, eggs…and olive oil, as well as artisan gouda cheese. Rosie and Ward serve as members of CalCAN’s Farmer Advisory Council.

Rosie attended a recent hearing on Central Valley climate adaptation held at UC Merced. We produced this summary of the proceedings.

How will drought, higher temperatures and extreme weather associated with climate change have an impact on our region in the coming decades? And how can we adapt to these challenges?

State Senator Bob Wieckowski (Fremont) and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee brought these questions to a legislative hearing at UC Merced on September 22nd. Farm Bureau member Rosie Burroughs attended and provided public testimony to the Committee, suggesting some ways to help growers adapt to climate change impacts.

We heard from panelists and scientists representing several state agencies and regional authorities. Significant shifts to the water cycle due to changing climate trends could have a sizable impact unless we rethink how we store and manage water, they said. More extreme heat days could have health impacts on outdoor workers and low-income communities. Central Valley agriculture may bear the brunt of the changes unless we have the tools we need to adapt.

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Drought 

 

The drought was the major farming story during summer 2015.

 

An estimated 542,000 acres were fallowed in 2015, up from 490,00 acres in 2014, as farmers used about 10 percent less water than in non-drought years. In 2010, agriculture consumed 33 million acre feet of irrigation water, while urban uses, including landscaping, consumed 8.3 million acre feet. One acre foot is 326,000 gallons.

 

In 2015, agriculture was expected to use about 30 million acre feet of water. The rain deficit between 2012 and 2015 is equivalent to one year's rain, which averages 20 inches across the state.

 

Senior holders of water rights were required to report how much water they were withdrawing from rivers and streams, and faced fines for taking excess water set at $1,000 a day and $2,500 an acre foot.

 

Forecasters are predicting record rainfall in California in 2015, as conditions for a wet El Nino rainy season in 2015-16 are apparent in the Pacific Ocean. Most of California's rain is from atmospheric rivers that bring water from the Pacific Ocean inland.

 

In recent years, fewer winter air currents reduced these so-called Pineapple Expresses, which are like hurricanes without wind. The last major El Nino was in 1997-98. 

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