Are Curtailments a Balanced Water Use?

Scott River (Source: Humboldt State University)

California’s water supply continues to face serious challenges and nowhere is the evidence clearer than on the farms that grow our food. Some of the most critical shortages expected this year extend from the Klamath Basin and Scott Valley, near the Oregon border, to Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. This 450-mile stretch includes some of the most productive farmland on the planet, where the ongoing drought threatens thousands of farms.

And it’s not just farmers who will suffer the consequences of vanishing water supplies. Consumers also face uncertainties when it comes to the food they buy. It’s hard to imagine empty shelves at the grocery store but the evidence of food shortages is already here in the form of higher prices.

In the Scott Valley an unprecedented water curtailment by the State Water Resources Control Board is aimed at reducing the use of irrigation water from both the Scott River and the area’s groundwater basin. Unlike most of California, this area is not served by the large state and federal water projects, nor does it have any reservoirs. The water in the Scott River and underground wells is the sole supply for these farmers on their 30,000 acres of irrigated land, located within a 512,000-acre watershed. This mountain valley primarily produces alfalfa and grass hay, pasture, grain, and cattle. Besides two organic dairies, beef production is either organic or conventional pasture-based for popular markets.

And unlike other areas of the state experiencing critically overdrafted groundwater basins, the Scott Valley basin is designated a “moderate priority,” with a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) recently completed for SGMA and submitted to CDWR for approval.  Despite this concerted effort, farmers in the area are wondering why another State agency is ignoring their GSP strategy and is forcing them to cut all groundwater use as part of the surface water curtailments on the Scott River.

Retired local watershed consultant, Sari Sommarstrom, said the inclusion of all agricultural wells in this drought emergency order appears to be a new extension of the State Water Board’s water rights enforcement powers. – an action that other well users in the state should be aware of. The agency asserts that this severe curtailment is needed to protect Coho salmon, a species listed as threatened under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, from going extinct.

“If minimum instream flow targets designed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to protect salmon are not attained each month, all ag water diversions – under both junior and senior water rights – will be cut back 100%. A 30% reduction option is available for well users through negotiation but is not guaranteed. Many irrigators fear the permanent loss of family farms this year if no irrigation is allowed.” Scott Valley organic rancher Gareth Plank adds, “It’s important to know that a 30% water curtailment translates into a 90% income reduction.  Farming in a region with a short growing season necessitates utilizing 100% of those precious frost-free days.”

Scott Valley (Source: UCANR/Thomas Harter)

Further, hydrologic modeling done by UC Davis water experts shows the target flow the Board is trying to achieve with these draconian cutbacks could not be met even with zero irrigation.

Sommarstrom, who helped create the Scott River Water Trust as a win-win option for fish and farmers, commented: “The California Water Code requires ‘reasonable’ decisions among competing water uses, yet the State Board is asking for the beneficial use of water for fish to almost entirely supersede the beneficial use for agriculture, which is not ‘reasonable’. And the Public Trust Doctrine seeks a ‘balance’ of uses, yet this curtailment is not a balance.”

The Scott River, she said, “currently represents the largest Coho population in the Klamath River system with an annual average of about 800 adults, similar to estimates for the Scott made by CDFW back in the 1960s and a significant improvement over 20 years ago. Its trend does not indicate any probable risk of “extinction”. 

“CDFW agrees that local restoration efforts have helped lead to this significant increase in the salmon population,” leaving her questioning the Coho population rationale as the necessity for the State Water Board’s unprecedented measures in the Scott River watershed.

Plank added, “It’s astounding that after so many years of collaborative efforts with their corresponding successes that the state would want to blow it all up with an ill-conceived draconian plan.”

This year is going to be rough for farmers throughout the state. In situations like this, California’s leadership must take into account the dire situation for farmers with few options and even less water when they’re making decisions that could end farming for thousands of people and the rural communities in which they live.

A Better Solution for Drought Resilience

The highly respected Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a report this week that provides guidance and recommendations on water-related spending by the Governor and the State Legislature. The report cites drought-related spending priorities from the past as well as current proposals, and makes a number of recommendations contrary to the current direction of California’s executive and legislative leadership.

Image of flooded recharge ponds in the San Joaquin Valley
Flooded recharge ponds, San Joaquin Valley (Source: PPIC)

In short, the LAO says that the current, $750 million drought response spending proposal does not address the immediate needs of the drought because it won’t result in an immediate increase in the water supply or in a reduction in water use.

“The LAO report shows While the Governor has presented his $750 million package as being for drought response, most of the proposed activities would not address conditions this summer and fall. This is because the majority of the activities would not result in an immediate increase in water supply or reduction in water use, or respond to emergency needs.”

In contrast, according to the report, “the majority of the proposed activities would focus on longer‑term efforts that might improve the State’s and local communities’ abilities to respond to future droughts. Specifically, both the infrastructure projects that would be funded in urban and small communities, as well as many of the water conservation initiatives and habitat improvement projects, likely would take at least a year and perhaps multiple years to implement.”

Preparing for the future is always a good idea. That’s why smart individuals have both a checking and a savings account. While the LAO praises the Governor for long-term drought resilience, its report highlights the lop-sided priorities where water storage projects account for only $30 million in proposed spending, or about six percent of the total.

“As shown in Figure 2, the Governor dedicates only $30 million from his new proposal for water storage projects. These funds would be used for groundwater recharge projects related to implementing local groundwater management plans in accordance with SGMA. In the context of the changing hydrology described above, this is not a particularly large level of spending.”

Chart depicting the Governor's drought response activities and costs

Groundwater storage projects also provide benefits beyond the obvious, such as developing both built and natural infrastructure such as canals, flood bypasses, and designated recharge basins—including farm fields—to direct runoff and floodwaters onto land where it can percolate into the ground to be used later. In addition to potentially restoring some existing groundwater deficits (and mitigating associated negative impacts) and increasing the water supply upon which farmers and residents can draw during dry periods, such projects often have the co‑benefit of reducing flood risk. As such, increasing available groundwater storage and opportunities to capture water runoff in managed aquifer recharge projects might merit additional investments beyond what the Governor proposes.

“The Legislature could also consider a package that provides comparatively more funding for groundwater recharge and storage projects, given their potential to help increase water supply, address groundwater deficiencies, and improve flood control.”

 The LAO report has it right. More emphasis on capturing water during wet years and getting it into storage, is the most effective way to address immediate drought needs and dry years in the future. Both agricultural and urban water users have made great strides over the decades in water conservation.

Shifting the focus of water policy and project financing toward more efficient stormwater capture and using State surplus and federal infrastructure dollars is the right choice at the right time.

Map Shows 2021 Farm Water Supply Cuts

Click here to see the latest map. Updated: June 2021

California farms are bearing the brunt of this year’s short water supply and have been forced to reduce the acreage of popular California crops, such as asparagus, melons, lettuce, rice, tomatoes, sweet corn, and others.

Water supply reductions mean fewer fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers, massive farm-related job losses, and billions in lost economic activity, impacts that go beyond rural and disadvantaged communities. View the map here.

About 2 million acres of California’s irrigated farmland, or one out of every four acres, has already had its water supply cut by 95 percent. Another million acres has lost 80 percent of its water supply this year with much of the remaining farmland experiencing cuts of 25 percent or more.

Conditions are similar to those that occurred in 2015. According to a 2015 drought report issued by UC Davis, ERA Economics, and the UC Agricultural issues Center, water supply cuts led to the fallowing of 540,000 acres of farmland, 21,000 lost jobs, and an economic loss of $2.7 billion.

Critical reservoirs, including Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, Millerton, and San Luis combined have 1.1 million acre-feet less water in storage today than they had at the end of March in 2015, California’s last critically dry year. Levels in these reservoirs are currently at 56 percent of average, compared to 72 percent of average at this time in 2015. They are essential to supplying rural communities with drinking water, irrigating farms, supplying water to wildlife refuges, and recharging aquifers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys where a majority of California-grown food products originate.

It is a distressing time for farmers, farm workers, and businesses that depend on agriculture all across California and illustrates the need to invest in infrastructure that will increase our ability to capture more water during wet years when it is abundant to save for dry years like this. It also puts a strain on consumers who want local, California-grown fresh food choices for their families.

Learn more:


What can the 2015 drought tell us about the impacts of a drought in 2021?

Info Graph – What can the 2015 drought tell us about the impacts of a drought in 2021?

Taking a look back at a similar water year can help us understand what might be in store for us through the rest of this year and possibly beyond.

What can the 2015 drought tell us about the impacts of a drought in 2021?

California is in a critically dry year, the same as in 2015. Water will be extremely tight for thousands of farmers around the state, and many of them have already received notice that their water supplies are being cut by up to 95 percent.

In 2015, water supply cuts of that magnitude led to over half a million acres of land taken out of production. Had there been sufficient water supplies in 2015, the amount of land that was fallowed could have produced:

  • 8.6 billion heads of lettuce, or
  • 594 million cartons of melons, or
  • 54 million tons of grapes, or
  • 27 million tons of tomatoes. 

Instead, because no water was available, those fields produced nothing but weeds.

California is the No. 1 farm state in the nation with tens of thousands of agricultural jobs, with wages at all income levels covering all 58 counties. When farms aren’t growing food for people, it affects jobs, personal income, and their quality of life. In addition, farm-related jobs contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to state and local tax revenue which provide services local communities value, like police, firefighters and teachers.

In 2015, a total of 21,000 jobs were lost with an economic impact of $2.7 billion across the state.

Preparing for Drought

Farmers have been preparing for another drought and have invested heavily in water use efficiency projects, including drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation systems, soil moisture monitoring, and computerized irrigation controllers. But the savings achieved by those investments haven’t been enough to avoid wide-scale land fallowing due to the massive water supply shortages farmers are experiencing again this year.

Info Graph – Long Term Impacts on California From Water Supply Cuts

Looking long-term, continuing water shortages will have a devastating effect not only on California farms but also on the farm related jobs throughout our economy.

Long Term Impacts on California From Water Supply Cuts

The Blueprint Economic Impact Report, available HERE, indicates that over the next 30 years, water supply cuts will lead to the permanent loss of 1 million acres of productive farmland.

Fewer healthy foods will be available from California farms. The report estimates that California will permanently lose:

  • 86,000 acres of vegetables,
  • 130,000 acres of fruit-producing trees,
  • 129,000 acres of wine and table grapes,
  • 327,000 acres of nuts, and much more.

These reductions translate into the permanent loss of 85,000 jobs, half of which are off the farm, such as food processing, transportation, wholesale, retail, and ports. They also mean the permanent loss of over $535 million in tax revenue which, again, is used to provide the services local communities value, like police, firefighters and teachers.

Actions, including better flood management for groundwater recharge, improved conveyance to move water to potential groundwater banking areas, new and enlarged storage projects, and regulatory reform designed to improve in-stream flows for ecosystem benefits while protecting agricultural water supplies can help minimize the effects described above. Federal investments toward improving water supply infrastructure is essential to providing a secure water future to sustain the nation’s food supply, meet urban and suburban needs, and provide for a healthy environment throughout California.

CDEC Reservoir Levels Map

California relies on water stored during wet years for use during dry years.
Water storage, both above and below ground is critical to California. 
The map below shows how much water is in California’s major above-ground storage.
These California’s Daily Reservoir Levels, per Department of Water Resources’ CDEC, is the water currently stored in our above-ground water storage.
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Guest Blog: Environmental Demands for Water Keep Expanding

By Justin Fredrickson, Environmental Policy Analyst, California Farm Bureau Federation

Asked on the Public Policy Institute of California water blog “how much water nature needs,” the response of Mike Sweeney, the executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s California Chapter, was an attention-getter.

At least it got mine.

“Research,” Sweeney said, “shows that taking more than 20 percent of a river’s natural flow at any given time can negatively impact the river’s function and ecosystem. Today,” he continued, “our rivers receive about half of their historic natural flow. Clearly, we have a problem.”

With 80 percent of available surface water off the table, clearly, we would have a problem!

Last year, there was lots of talk about agriculture using 80 percent of California’s water, but the record was finally set straight. The PPIC notes that average statewide water use “is roughly 50 percent environmental, 40 percent agricultural and 10 percent urban.”

In wet years, according to the California Water Plan, the same environment-ag-urban split becomes more like 60/30/10. And in dry years, it’s more of a 40/50/10 split.

Urban use fluctuates somewhat more across wet, average and dry years than this would suggest—but the real variability comes in environmental and agricultural use.

In wet years, the proportion of agricultural use drops significantly as environmental use rises significantly, while in dry years the proportion of agricultural use goes up as environmental use drops.

Mr. Sweeney’s view is that fish are shorted in all years, but drought years are where he feels the fish are shorted the worst. Variability is nature’s way, according to Mr. Sweeney, but human uses of water upset the kind of variability nature needs.

But if his proposition is that the environmental-ag-urban split should tilt, say, to 80/15/5, then truly, “We have a problem.”

The thing is, farms and cities cannot get by on 15 and 5 percent of our available water supply.

In light of several realities, it’s also problematic to say (as Mr. Sweeney does) that the water he believes nature “needs” should, furthermore, be precisely managed to come down at the times, the temperatures and in something like the volumes in which it would naturally have come down before California had farms, cities, upstream dams, etc.

Managing our system that way would be fairly disastrous: For example, it would mean water we presently capture in reservoirs constructed to catch and store supplies for the rest of the year would instead run to the sea in winter and spring, shrinking reservoirs to piddling mud puddles by midsummer.

And should Mother Nature happen to deal us multiple years of drought? Big problem.

Consider farmers’ experience of the last few years:

  • Surface water deliveries to some users have been at or near zero for three years running—and have been scarcely better for others.
  • Little water was stored or delivered in 2015 as prodigious quantities of water flowed to sea during storms—and yet, when El Niño brought rain and snow in 2016, storage and deliveries remained low.
  • To preserve their livelihoods, sustain regional economies and continue to produce the food and fiber we all take for granted, farmers have been forced to rely on groundwater where it is available. But new groundwater laws may ultimately put more groundwater off-limits too.

As regulatory agencies try ever more draconian ways to save the fish, and as farms go increasingly without water, you have to wonder, “Just where does it all end?”

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be that more and more water will be reallocated to the environment, and less and less will be left over for farming—until, little by little, whole swaths of the choicest food-growing region on the planet are returned to the tumbleweeds.

If all that water produces even a handful of additional fish, Mr. Sweeney and other environmentalists might call that an even trade.

In the meantime, though, it doesn’t appear anyone ever sent the memo to ordinary people that the plan is simply to move California out of the business of growing food.

If ordinary people were told this, would they be actually on board with it?

While something tells me they wouldn’t, the reality is that ordinary people don’t know—and, by the time they do know, it may be too late.

Lest we lose all hope, let’s ask another question: Is there, perhaps, some way we can do better for the fish, and for farms and cities as well?

Must we really push California agriculture offshore in our iron determination to save the fish—while, along the way, damaging sensitive ecosystems in other, less environmentally conscious parts of the globe? Or, if we get creative enough, are there perhaps ways to help the fish and keep our agriculture as well?

Water is a scarce and precious resource. As California farmers know better than anyone, every drop counts.

Heaven knows, farmers are tremendously tough and resourceful. Many urban and suburban residents have cut their water use significantly, too.

Why, then, should environmental water uses be immune to the same scrutiny and efficiency standards applied to farms and cities?

While the clock ticks down, these questions become more urgent, critical and timely.

Guest blog shared courtesy of the California Farm Bureau Federation

Over 41 percent of California’s irrigated farmland loses nearly entire surface water supply

Over 41 percent of California’s irrigated farmland will lose 80 percent or more of its normal surface water allocation this year, according to a new survey by the California Farm Water Coalition.

The survey of agricultural water suppliers conducted the first week of April shows that 3.1 million acres, or 41.6 percent of California’s irrigated farmland, is expecting deep cuts to the water delivered in a normal year. That is an area 10 times the size of Los Angeles.

Info graph – 2015 farm water supply cuts

The survey also revealed that almost 30 percent of the irrigated farmland in the state, 2.2 million acres, will get no surface water deliveries this year.

Because of significant agricultural water supply cuts that have happened over the past two years, large amounts of land going unplanted will occur in 2015. According to the survey, approximately 620,000 acres are estimated to be fallowed this year. Associated job losses could reach 23,000 with an economic hit to the state’s economy exceeding $5.7 billion.

California farms have taken a severe hit to water supplies for two years in a row. Researchers at the University of California issued a report last year based on computer modeling that estimated the Central Valley’s surface water supply diminished by about one-third, or 6.6 million acre-feet with 410,000 acres estimated to be fallowed.

Some farmers last year received no surface water deliveries at all and turned to groundwater pumping to offset the losses. Recent levels of groundwater pumping are expensive and not sustainable.


SWRCB staff rejects urgent request for water

SWRCB staff rejects urgent request for water

Despite concurrence among five State and federal agencies, a single State employee reversed a plan that would have delivered desperately needed water to most of drought-parched California. The decision is currently costing California water users about 2,000 acre-feet of water per day.

SWRCB Executive Director Tom Howard has placed himself above the experts at five State and federal water and fishery agencies.

A decision yesterday afternoon by State Water Resources Control Board Executive Director Tom Howard is already causing a loss of precious water supplies to two-thirds of California’s population and seven of the top 10 agricultural producing counties. Howard rejected a plan by the State Department of Water Resources and United States Bureau of Reclamation that would have allowed limited increases in export pumping under certain flow conditions in the Delta. The State Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service all agreed that the additional pumping did not pose an unreasonable risk to threatened or endangered salmon and Delta smelt.

Increased water called “tradeoffs”

In his rejection Howard said, “…there is not currently adequate information to indicate that this export level is reasonable given the current status of species and their distribution in the Delta…” He further stated that, “…water supply tradeoffs are not clear given the unknown water contract allocations that will occur this year.”

Translated: Not interested in helping Californians south of Delta, whether they be farmers or urban water users because State and federal agencies have not made their full allocation announcements yet. Or, since the projects might get more water allocated in the future, I can prevent them from getting any more now and it will all work out.

More accurately, Mr. Howard is playing chicken with water supplies for a south of Delta agricultural sector that verges on being a grotesque play on the cartoon character Wimpy: “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday, for the water I take from you today.”

Alas, under the current weather pattern California is suffering under, Tuesday may never come.

State and federal fishery agencies approved of increased pumping

DWR and USBR agreed on a water supply plan for the conditions that exist right now. The water supply for the remainder of the year is contingent on weather, which is uncertain at the very least. Ultimately pumping reductions under this order will affect south of Delta wildlife refuges, urban users, including many disadvantaged communities, and farmers and could be about 2,000 acre-feet of lost water per day.

It is outrageous that one person with no special expertise in science or project operations can ignore the collective decision of FIVE State and federal agencies that have responsibilities for managing ecosystem resources.

Potential loss of $38 million in water supply

Howard said the issue would be open for discussion at the SWRCB’s workshop on February 18, which is 14 days from now. Depending on the weather, about 38,000 acre-feet, or $38 million worth of water could be lost forever.

What will 38,000 acre-feet of water grow? Any of the following: (click to enlarge)