To grow food, you need water, and that is now in very short supply.
With very little rain over the winter months, California’s persistent drought has put the state right back to where it was six years ago when Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency and mandated a 25 percent reduction in water usage across the state.
“The last two consecutive years have been very dry,” said Lewis Bair, manager of Reclamation District 108, who said that California’s drought will result in crop lands being left fallow, farmers taking drastic measures to keep trees alive, a huge draw on groundwater from the basin’s aquifers, and the death of perhaps 50 percent of the state’s spawning salmon.
Bair said 2019/2020 was dry but 2021 has seen at least five inches less rainfall.
“We were kind of saved last year because of storage,” Bair said, in a report to the Board of Supervisors on April 13. “Shasta was pretty full from the year before when it was pretty wet. But two years in a row with very dry conditions have put us in a really tough spot; everybody, the whole entire state.”
The Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that they will be making adjustments to water releases at Shasta Dam to give spawning Chinook salmon the best chance at survival.
“We know we are going to have a difficult water year ahead of us, but we learned much during the last drought and are applying those lessons learned to our operations this year,” said Reclamation Regional Director Ernest Conant, in a statement.
The water adjustments from Shasta will mean that farmers will get less water for agriculture than they normally get, and hydropower plants will get far less water to produce electricity.
Water users who rely on transfers from Tehama Colusa Canal Authority will only receive 5 percent of their water allocations this year. Water users on Sacramento River settlement contracts will be cut to 75 percent, although predictions indicate there still may not be enough water in the system for that, Bair said.
Bair said California last year was the 15th driest year in the 114 years of record keeping.
“This year, it looks like the fourth driest year as a projection,” he said. “So when you put those two years back to back, you can understand that we are in a tough situation.”
Not only is Shasta well below the normal level for water storage, East Park Reservoir, Oroville and other state reservoirs are also very low.
Bair expects some rice fields to remain fallow this year, with the cumulative impacts from that affecting many related industries. Recreation opportunities will also be affected.
The region may also see some seed crop farmers selling their water to keep permanent crops, such as almond and walnut trees, from being destroyed, but the water will come at a very high price.
Earlier this month, a number of state legislators asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency amid what they said is a water crisis.
Facing a recall, Newsom has been hesitant to make such a declaration, but water industry leaders have come together to see what state and federal dollars might be available for water infrastructure projects.
“If the Sites Reservoir was here today, we would have 1 million acre-feet that would augment our water supply,” said Jeff Sutton, general manager of the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority.
By storing water during wet years, federal agencies would be able to push cold water back into Shasta to protect endangered fish.
“It would kind of lubricate the system and allow for water supply to be delivered,” Sutton said. “When that crashes, the whole system crashes. In 2014 and 2015, it was a real disaster.”
Sutton is hopeful that if Sites Reservoir is online by 2030, there will be a different dynamic in the state’s ability to handle drought.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that in addition to fields being left fallow and orchards facing removal this year, California residents can expect financial impacts from low vegetable and honey yields (higher prices at the grocery store); a costly fire season; a decline in recreational activities and tourism; high forest mortality; dry wetlands; the poor survival rate of native plants and animals; increased agriculture unemployment; poor air quality affecting human health; an increase in greenhouse gas emissions as hydropower production decreases; and private and municipal wells possibly running dry.
“Even in normal times, water issues in the state are increasingly complex and at times very convoluted,” Colusa County Community Services Director Greg Plucker said. “This year, because of the critical dryness, it has just heightened those levels of issues.”