snow melt

Mar 9, 2022
2022 water year looks dismal as snowpack melts

The optimism spurred by heavy snowstorms in December has melted away, and the 2022 water year is now looking bleak.

After facing the driest recorded January and February in state history, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) reported that statewide, the snowpack stood at 63% of average for the date last week after conducting the agency’s third manual snow survey of the year.

“That is not enough to fill up our reservoirs,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of the DWR Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit.

He said, “It’s safe to say we’ll end this year dry and extend this drought a third year.”

With only one month left in California’s wet season, DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement, “Californians should plan for a third year of drought conditions.”

“A significantly below-average snowpack, combined with already low reservoir levels,” Nemeth said, “make it critical that all Californians step up and conserve water every day to help the state meet the challenges of severe drought.”

A third consecutive drought year means farmers, water managers and state officials must figure out how to move forward and plan for the state’s water future.

Those themes were amplified last week at a Sacramento conference – “Water for a Sustainable California.” It was held by the California Irrigation Institute to focus attention on agricultural and urban water management.

“This year is probably going to be the worst year ever,” said conference speaker Thad Bettner, general manager of Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. “It’s been a brutal year for California all around.”

Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, a Sacramento River settlement contractor with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, received an initial water allocation of 75%.

Bettner said, “There are conversations happening right now about what this year will shape up like, but it’s going to be pretty tough.”

As part of a conference panel discussion on water sustainability, Bettner described how farmers and the district have partnered with others to help fish populations and stretch water use.

State Water Resources Control Board Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel talked about broad water issues facing the state, including water rights, storage and balancing groundwater supplies as required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

In a summary of his remarks, provided by the state water board, Esquivel discussed imposing water curtailments in critical watersheds to preserve supplies for cities and limiting the amount that water-rights holders may be able to divert this year.

Last year, the state board adopted emergency curtailments for several watersheds, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, due to severe drought conditions. That action halted 2021 water diversions for 10,300 water rights on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and denied surface-water deliveries for some 4,500 farms.

California Irrigation Institute President Chase Hurley said Esquivel’s remarks signaled potential emergency actions again this water year. He said water rights will also be a topic of discussion for the board.

“You can tell that water rights is something that Joaquin and the board are really thinking about,” said Hurley, managing partner of Water & Land Solutions and former general manager of San Luis Canal Company in Dos Palos.

Hurley expressed added concern about how the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan would require diversion flows for fish in three San Joaquin River tributaries. “It (altering water rights) is a scary proposition, especially if the state board is able to pull 40-50% of your water and leave it in the river,” he said.

A look at water rights may stem from recommendations released last month by water law and policy leaders that form the Planning and Conservation League.

Citing hotter summers and the disappearing rain and snowpack, the league released recommendations to update California water laws to address drought and climate change. In its report, the group said California’s current system of water laws is “ill-equipped to respond to modern water shortages.”

It said the water picture must be reassessed to safeguard the health, safety and livelihoods of the state’s 40 million residents, support the economy and protect imperiled ecosystems.

Bettner, meanwhile, called for protecting existing water rights.

“We strongly support our water-rights system and that our infrastructure, agreements, operations, etc., are built on that system.

“While some may want to change it or toss it out, our water-rights system and water code provide for flexibility to manage, in changing hydrologic conditions, environment and infrastructure. What we need is our water-rights system to be implemented to its fullest extent versus cherry picking sections we agree or disagree with.”

To achieve a more sustainable water supply in the state, Dorene D’Adamo, vice chair of the state water board, suggested that there be more collaboration and partnerships to turn problems into solutions.

“There is concern throughout the valley of seeing as much as 800,000 acres potentially going out of production as a result of implementation of SGMA,” D’Adamo said. “There is tremendous concern wherever you go in the valley of what this is going to mean for the transfer market, what’s it going to mean if you have ongoing surface water challenges, so really looking for partnerships there, expanding groundwater recharge and being more creative with rescheduling water deliveries.”

Fourth-generation Kern County farmer Bret Sill grows almonds, walnuts, row crops, alfalfa and wheat. He said, “We’ve been trying to work sustainably for many generations.”

Over the years, his family added recycled water to irrigate some crops and employed new technology such as moisture probes to reduce water use.

He has also worked with a company to automate irrigation among other investments in new technology.

“We are looking at what we can do to be more sustainable in our practices not only by increasing soil fertility, but by increasing water retention and carbon sequestration,” Sill said. “My goal is to reduce our reliance on synthetic inputs. We are conserving water, we are conserving energy and trying to be more sustainable for the future.”

– Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau

Photo: Ken James/California Department of Water Resources

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