Reservoirs Are Filling Up, but California’s Drought Isn’t Over
As the rainy season draws to a close in California, a deluge of drought-related numbers have been released: reservoir levels, conservation figures, feet of snowpack. The winter, which never saw the “Godzilla El Niño” meteorologists promised fully realized, did bring above-average rainfall to the parched state. Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory water cuts may be eased in the coming months, and farmers are set to receive full allocations of irrigation water after years of having deliveries slashed—but only in some parts of the state. Unlike previous El Niño patterns, which tend to drench Southern California but don’t hit northern mountains where key resevoirs are located, rain and snowfall was heaviest in northern parts of the state in 2015–16. That gives the state more water for the dry months ahead—but there still isn’t enough to go around.
As state and federal agencies figure out how to divvy up water for the rest of the year, it’s not only clear that the drought will persist but that farmers and residents in Southern California will feel it the most. Just look at the most recent map from the Drought Monitor: The parts of the state colored rust-red, which remain in a state of “exceptional drought,” include its agricultural and population centers—the Central Valley and Los Angeles, respectively.
Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation announced allocations from the Central Valley Project, the state’s largest water supply, which serves 3 million acres of farmland. Farmers north of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, which drains a large portion of the Sierra Nevada, will receive 100 percent of their irrigation water; farmers south of the delta, in the San Joaquin Valley, will receive just 5 percent of their irrigation water deliveries. For the last two years, they received zero.
“The drought has hit farmers, farmworkers, and thousands of families hard, but now with the northern reservoirs filled and spilling water to make room for spring snowmelt, the federal government has very deliberately chosen to deny available relief to thousands of Californians in the San Joaquin Valley,” Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the trade group Western Growers, said in a statement. “This action represents more than a failure of common sense. A government that deliberately chokes off water for its people is a government that has lost its moral compass.”
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There are caveats, however. Thanks to the arcane system that governs water rights in the West, in which some growers have generations-old dibs on irrigation supplies, not all growers will see just 5 percent of their water allocation. Farmers with senior water rights (claimed before 1914) in the San Joaquin Valley have been promised 100 percent deliveries, while water districts on the valley’s east side should see about 30 percent of their allocation.
The delivery news presents a mixed bag for farmers in the Central Valley—comprising the Sacramento Valley north of the delta and the San Joaquin Valley to the south—who produce 40 percent of the domestic fruit, nuts, and vegetable supply. Four of the five top farming counties in the state are in the drier, southern end of the Central Valley. How does some of the most productive farmland in the country continue to grow food with no surface water deliveries? Farmers have increasingly relied on groundwater to keep production up during years when water allocation has hovered around zero. But while the drilling and pumping kept almonds in your snack bars and profits in farmers’ bank accounts, the aquifer that the some 100,000 wells up and down the Central Valley draw on is critically overdrafted. According to one 2015 study by hydrologists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Central Valley aquifer has lost nearly 30 cubic kilometers of groundwater over the last decade. Lake Mead, the largest surface reservoir in the United States, has a maximum capacity of 40 cubic kilometers.
Last month, the smaller State Water Project said it will deliver 45 percent of requested water to agricultural and urban water agencies, which is the highest allocation it has made since 2012. Just shy of 1 million acres of farmland, a little less area than the state’s almond orchards cover, is irrigated with SWP water.
Even with the reservoirs whose low levels have been used to convey the catastrophic nature of the drought in recent years filling back up, many cresting at historic averages, the drought is by no means over in California. Farmers saddled with limited irrigation deliveries may blame regulators or endangered fish species for their dry land, but the fact remains that there still just isn’t enough water to go around.
Californians are learning a thing or two about using less water, however, which could make mitigating the drought’s damage as it continues on, albeit somewhat abated, easier: Between June 2015 and February 2016, according to the State Water Resources Control Board, residents conserved nearly 1.19 million acre-feet of water, enough to supply 6 million people for a year.