Farmers, officials and activists agree there are parched times ahead
After two decades of raising sheep north of Chico, Wookey Ranch co-owner Christine Hantelman is no stranger to drought. Every year, she uses the most conservative rainfall estimates to carefully calculate how to keep her foraging flock of 150 on green pastures, even allowing for a two-month cushion in case of especially dry seasons.
When Gov. Jerry Brown announced a state of emergency in drought-stricken California last Friday (Jan. 17), he was merely making official what Hantelman and others in the agriculture industry have known for months; in the middle of the rainy season, the state remains parched, with what Hantelman called “unprecedented” dry times ahead.
In fact, 2013 was the driest year ever recorded in California, with records dating back to 1850. The Sierra Nevada snowpack and other snowpacks statewide are currently holding about 20 percent of the water they normally do this time of year.
“I think it’s a far more serious situation than most people might understand, because as dry land ranchers, we’re kind of on the front of it,” said Hantelman, noting the dry conditions have already had a significant impact on the agricultural operation she runs with her husband, Richard Coon. She estimated they’ve bought at least twice the amount of hay as in normal years, a necessity to supplement her flock’s needs when the grass is dry and depleted of nutrients. Hantelman said her neighbors and friends in the cattle trade report similar numbers, and their problems are just beginning.
“The reality is, we’ll all have to de-stock,” she said. “I’m looking at reducing my flock by 30 percent now. If we get no rain at all this spring, I might have to sell the entire herd.
“We’ve spent the last 10 years increasing our operation to make it financially successful,” she continued. “If we have fewer animals to sell or have to liquidate, it will have financial impacts that could carry over for years to come.”
Hantelman said fellow ranchers have also reported problems with securing drinking water for their animals, as features like stock ponds have already run dry at the height of winter, making it necessary to truck water pumped from wells or other sources to places it usually flows naturally for much of the year.
Christina Buck, water resources scientist with the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation, said that some others are already feeling the drought’s pinch. She noted that water levels at monitoring wells recorded last fall were already at or near historic lows, and some people have already found that wells that have worked fine for years are now not deep enough to access groundwater.
“There’s definitely some vulnerability, especially in areas that use water for both household and agricultural uses,” Buck said, citing the Durham-Dayton and Vina areas as examples.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” she said.
Buck explained that Butte County does have an emergency drought plan. A task force composed of representatives from her office and other entities, such as Cal Fire and agricultural stakeholders, usually meets once a year to discuss current water conditions and concerns. The group met in November, submitted a report to the Butte County Board of Supervisors earlier this month, and will meet more regularly throughout the drought crisis. Buck said a February meeting is in the works.
Those with shallow wells (under 200 feet) are the most likely to experience problems, she said, recommending well-users be mindful.
“We want to make sure people know how deep their wells are, and that they’re prepared, in case they need to get water another way or dig their wells deeper.”
Vickie Newlin, the county’s assistant director of the Department of Water and Resource Conservation, said her department is also emphasizing the importance of neighborly cooperation to conserve water.
“We really recommend people work together,” Newlin said, explaining that pumping groundwater creates a temporary “cone of depression” in the underground aquifer, and for nearby neighbors pulling water from the same source, it becomes more expensive, less efficient and places greater strain on limited resources.
“If you irrigate one day, maybe your neighbor could irrigate a few days later so there’s not as great a pull on the aquifer at the same time,” she said. “Cooperation and communication between neighbors, especially in the farming community, is essential to helping us get through this.”
Some water-rights advocates have criticized aspects of Gov. Brown’s emergency declaration, particularly as it calls for the expediting of water transfers to areas south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. It also suspends some oversight regarding the environmental impacts of these transfers.
“Water transfers north to south have gone without any sort of comprehensive analysis for well over a dozen years,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director for local water watchdog group AquAlliance. “Expediting these transfers, as well as eliminating analysis from the California Environmental Quality Act, compounds the problem.
“Nobody can deny that we’re having critically dry conditions, which certainly plays into what’s happening here, but gross mismanagement and lack of planning is at least 80 percent of the problem,” she said.
Newlin acknowledged water transfers can affect the hydrological health of the North State, but said she’s more concerned about the possibility of more austere measures that might be taken down the road if inflow to Northern California’s large reservoirs remains low.
She explained that, because of agreements made during the building of Shasta and Oroville dams, some water districts with pre-1914 water rights may be forced to give up more water if drought conditions reach certain levels and certain agencies call for the cutbacks.
Some of the water districts along the Sacramento River have agreements with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, while others along the Feather River have similar arrangements with the California Department of Water Resources. The former organization could cut back 25 percent of the water it shares with some users along the Sacramento, allowing only 75 percent of surface water from the river to be used on farms in those areas. The latter organization can claim 50 percent of the Feather River’s surface water in any single year, and once every seven years can claim 100 percent of the water.
“Even if it’s cut back 50 percent, water districts with surface-water supplies will have to pump groundwater to meet their needs,” Newlin said. “There’s the potential for this to happen in Butte County and the Sacramento Valley.
“Everything is dependent on the balance of groundwater and surface water that gets used, and it’s a very delicate balance.”