The big squeeze

North State water supplies under pressure as drought parches California

Water officials say Lake Oroville is at 38 percent of capacity.

Water officials say Lake Oroville is at 38 percent of capacity.

PHOTO courtesy of california department of water resources

A thousand feet beneath the city of Chico, in the pitch-black waters of the Tuscan Aquifer, time has proceeded for ages without sound or sunlight, mostly unaffected by the world above. But in recent years, an increasing tug of upward force has been moving the Tuscan Aquifer’s water toward the surface of the Earth—drawn, ultimately, by the thirst of fruit trees and vegetable fields hundreds of miles away.

And in 2014, there simply is not enough water to go around. The driest year in California’s history ended just six weeks ago, and a second dry winter is underway. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17, and state and federal water agencies have warned farmers and cities that there will be virtually no allocations this year unless a great deal of rain should soon fall.

Recent weekend storms did little to dent the huge water deficit. Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville are up to 37 percent and 38 percent of capacity, respectively, whereas both were at 36 percent the week before. Folsom Lake is at just 26 percent. In the San Joaquin Valley, San Luis Reservoir—a major agricultural supplier filled with Delta water—is just 30 percent full, and streams and rivers that usually become wintertime torrents of mud-brown water have dwindled into quietly trickling brooks. Sierra Nevada snowpack—usually relied upon for late-summer water—is a fraction of its normal amount. As of last week, Black Butte Lake had entirely dried up.

To meet the needs of the parched state, water managers are increasingly relying upon the groundwater reserves of the Tuscan Aquifer, a trend that critics say is already proving unsustainable. The aquifer’s volume has apparently been diminishing through the years as farmers are forced to drill deeper and deeper to tap the reservoir, according to Christina Buck, water-resources scientist with the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation. This not only threatens Chico’s municipal water supply but also could eventually cause measurable shrinkage of surface rivers and lakes.

“Officials know that we could be looking at longer droughts in the future, and they’re looking for another source of water as a life-extender,” said Jim Brobeck, water-policy analyst with Chico-based AquAlliance. “So they want to integrate our groundwater into the state water supply.”

Brobeck says the chief threat to the region’s underground water stores is an increasingly common practice called groundwater substitutions, or transfers, whereby landowners sell their own surface water to others in need—often making a healthy profit—and replace it with well water from the public supply.

This wasn’t a problem years ago, when there was less demand for the state’s water. During the previous worst-ever drought in California’s history in the late 1970s, only 22 million people lived in the state. Today, almost 40 million people populate California, and more farmland than ever before is under intensive cultivation. Salmon and steelhead numbers are dropping as their spawning streams are increasingly diverted for human use. The governor now wants to build a pair of giant tunnels that could divert most of the already heavily used Sacramento River to the San Joaquin Valley—a project that critics argue will not solve the state’s water shortage.

Forecasters expect a dry winter. Should March, April and May come and go with little to no rain, the likelihood that any will fall before September is virtually zero. With growers in the Sacramento and the San Joaquin valleys already banking on reduced production, and salmon unable to spawn under current conditions, no one knows how California and its environment will cope should a second year pass with almost no rain.

Several miles south of Chico, straddling the line between Butte and Glenn counties, is the large property owned by John Thompson. The rice grower works 1,400 acres on land that his grandfather worked in the 1940s. Thompson produces several varieties of rice, mostly for table use but also for an Oregon sake brewery. His water comes from the Feather River and is provided on a contractual basis by the state’s Department of Water Resources.

This year, though, there may be very little—even none—available.

“We still have a chance for some rain in February and March, but it’s looking almost certain that our production will be cut by 50 percent,” Thompson said. If the state allots him no water at all from the Feather River, he will still have his wells—though Thompson estimated that he could keep only 300 to 400 acres of his land in production using groundwater.

He noted that even the drought of 37 years ago did not reduce Lake Oroville as much as the current conditions have. “We’re really in uncharted waters here,” he said. “In ’77, we had more water in the lake and less people in the state.”

The receding of the lake has revealed all sorts of junky treasures, including this old car entangled with fallen tree branches.

PHOTO by melanie mactavish

While the Sacramento Valley’s farmers will feel the strain caused by the drought, the severe absence of rainfall will devastate few agricultural areas as severely as it will the Westlands Water District, on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The region receives just six or seven inches of rainfall in an average year and relies almost entirely on water from the Sacramento Valley, transported south from the Delta via two canals. This year, hundreds of thousands of acres of Westland’s farmland will almost certainly receive no water at all.

“We’re bracing our farmers for possibly no allocation this year,” said Jason Peltier, Westlands’ deputy general manager. “If that happens, farmers will let their fields go dry and use what water they get to keep their orchards alive.”

Peltier said his region’s 600 farmers may need to fallow as much as a third of their land this summer—roughly 200,000 acres left to bake in the sun.

But many water-policy analysts say that Westlands’ farmers are largely to blame for any drought-related grievances they may suffer. The region is a relatively young farming district whose contract with the federal government stipulates that other farming areas as well as environmental needs must come first in dry years. Chinook salmon, for example, must have enough water to spawn in and enough flowing downstream to the sea to carry juveniles safely past the two major pumps that serve the San Joaquin Valley.

Nonetheless, farmers in Westlands have been shifting en masse from annual field crops to fruit trees—especially almond orchards. Critics say this is a bad strategy in arid regions.

“Those trees need water every year,” said Mike Hudson, a water activist and commercial salmon fisherman in Oakland. “You can’t fallow them during drought. This is creating a constant demand for water in a state without a constant supply of water. It takes away all flexibility in management.”

In years when vegetable farmers may have once simply fallowed their fields due to shortages in the state and federal supplies, nut and tree-fruit farmers now pay large amounts of money to irrigation districts in the Sacramento Valley for deliveries of water.

This trend, critics like Brobeck say, is driving the rise in groundwater substitutions. Not only is this process denting the Chico region’s supply, it may also be driving a decline in salmon populations.

That’s because transferring water from north to south requires using two giant pumps in the Delta that can actually reverse the seaward flow of the river system. This causes young fish migrating toward the sea to swim toward the pumps instead. Millions of baby salmon have died through the years in this way. If more water continues to be removed for the benefit of farmers, some fish species likely will go extinct, critics say.

In 2013, the Yuba County Water Agency sold away 72,000 acre-feet of groundwater and replaced it with well water, according to a report last year from the Bureau of Reclamation. The same document predicted that other districts along the Sacramento River would make more than 37,000 acre-feet of groundwater transfers, including 5,000 from the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, in the same year.

Local groups, including AquAlliance and the Butte Environmental Council, believe these groundwater transfers have the potential to create a water deficit in what is currently one of the last water-secure regions in the state.

And the transfers could be ramped up in coming years. In 2010, the Bureau of Reclamation and the state’s San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority submitted a proposal to make up to 600,000 acre-feet of annual groundwater transfers from Northern California to users south of the Delta. The proposal, which intends to supplement the federal water-delivery system with a new water source, requires an environmental impact report before it can be initiated—a mandate of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

However, the government has bypassed this potentially costly step by edging through a legal loophole, according to critics.

Jim Brobeck, a water-policy analyst with AquAlliance, says the selling of surface water and subsequent groundwater pumping by farmers is a threat to the Tuscan Aquifer.

PHOTO by melanie mactavish

“They’re calling it a one-year water transfer, instead of a long-term project, and that allows them to skip the CEQA guidelines,” explained Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council. “Now, we’re seeing multiple one-year transfers, year after year, without environmental review.”

Brobeck at AquAlliance confirms the same—that the federal and state applicants are skirting environmental laws and essentially stealing Northern California’s water.

“They just keep delaying the environmental review, which allows them to operate on a year-by-year basis,” Brobeck said.

On Feb. 3, the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District announced it would be activating five wells this winter to draw up groundwater from the Tuscan Aquifer and transfer it to orchards in Glenn and Colusa counties. The measure is an emergency action never taken before, since these trees normally would receive surface water from the Sacramento River.

Thaddeus Bettner, general manager of the irrigation district, says roughly 10,000 acres of almond and walnut trees have woken from winter dormancy several weeks early and are now budding. Without water on their roots, the trees could suffer damage—not only for this year but for successive seasons, as well.

“We’re faced this season with a situation that we’ve never seen before,” Bettner said. “We’ve had to decide whether we allow damage to occur to the season’s yield and maybe the trees themselves, or use groundwater and try and protect the trees and the area’s economy.” Bettner guesses his district will use about 3,000 acre-feet of groundwater on the area’s orchards this winter—a fraction, he points out, of the 700,000 acre-feet of water used in the region per year.

But this one-time emergency strategy could become a long-term one. Bettner said the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District will soon begin the CEQA environmental review process with the aim of making these transfers any time allocations of river water are reduced.

Brobeck said the area’s canal system was initially built to alleviate pressure on groundwater reserves.

“So, using them to distribute groundwater represents a huge shift,” he said.

About 10 percent of California’s land surface area is cropland, most of it irrigated—and there are critics who believe the state’s agriculture industry has exceeded its sustainable level.

“Agriculture needs to be using half the water it is now,” said David Zetland, a water-law blogger and author of the forthcoming book Living with Water Scarcity. Zetland calls the San Joaquin Valley “the No. 1 hotspot of unsustainable agriculture” and believes one way to curb farm growth and sustainably manage the industry would be to prohibit agricultural districts from importing water from other drainages. He said the perception that Northern California has a surplus of water is false.

The governor’s drought emergency brought Californians quickly to attention in January, spurring action, including issuing rationing measures or enforcing those already in place, among urban and rural water districts.

But Brobeck at AquAlliance isn’t convinced, and he even takes issue with the notion that there is an emergency. We know, Brobeck says, that California is a dry region. We know that droughts occur here. Farmers who settled land that receives only six inches of rain per year took a gamble—and he feels they are now dragging down the rest of the state.

Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources, measures the snowpack near Echo Summit on Jan. 3, finding levels at one-fifth of what is typical for early January.

PHOTO courtesy of california department of water resources

“The emergency is not the fact that we’re having a drought,” he said. “The emergency is the fact that people are planting thousands of acres of permanent crops in areas with an unreliable water supply.”

West Coast salmon numbers have declined all the way north to Alaska, but only in California are their troubles so directly related to water shortages. In the Central Valley, federal laws protect salmon by guaranteeing that enough water will always be left in the Delta to support their populations. However, these laws are failing, and even in nondrought years, salmon seem to come up short when farming districts want the same water. The Central Valley chinook runs have declined through the years, while agriculture acreage has steadily grown.

Already, the current drought has heavily impacted Central Valley fish populations. In November, the Bureau of Reclamation began reducing the outflow from Shasta Dam as an emergency effort to conserve water in Lake Shasta. But the drastic measure left thousands of nests—or redds—full of fertilized chinook salmon eggs high and dry. Biologists believe that as much as 40 percent of the fall-run chinook spawn was lost.

A similar loss of more than 10 percent of chinook salmon redds occurred in the American River after officials reduced the outflow from Folsom Lake in January.

Even in times of drought, endangered fish species are supposed to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, a 1992 law called the Central Valley Project Improvement Act requires that a minimum of 800,000 acre-feet of water be reserved every year for the benefit of fish and wildlife. The intent of that law was to protect chinook salmon and, in fact, double their population.

But the law has so far failed.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, explained that the Bureau of Reclamation regularly “games the system” by releasing water from Folsom or Shasta lakes and officially logging the releases as part of the required 800,000 acre feet intended to support wildlife and migrating fish. This meets the obligations of the 1992 Improvement Act.

“But then, when the water reaches the Delta, they pump it south,” Grader said. “They’re double accounting with the water.”

The drought has stoked up the debate surrounding the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the state’s proposed water conveyance project that would divert much of the Sacramento River via two giant tunnels into the San Joaquin Valley.

Peltier, of Westlands, like many in the agriculture industry, supports the plan. He thinks the proposed 35-mile-long twin tunnels would increase reliability for farmers by allowing sufficient transfer of water, even in dry years, without compromising the health of the Delta. The existing water pumps near Stockton, operating at full force, can reverse the seaward flow of the Sacramento River, confusing migrating fish and disrupting their natural life cycles.

But opponents of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, including salmon fishermen and environmental groups, say the project likely would destroy struggling fish populations by simply removing too much water, too consistently. One of the plan’s main drawbacks, they say, is that the twin tunnels would not produce any new water, as desalination and water-recycling systems would do.

Many farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have lamented what appears to them to be a waste—river water flowing past the Delta and out to sea.

“In years when there is a surplus, the Bureau of Reclamation should allow us to capture that water,” said Joe Del Bosque, who farms mostly almonds and melons on 2,000 acres in the Westlands Water District. Del Bosque said he might have enough water stored in San Luis Reservoir to last him through the year—but 2015, he says, could destroy him.

Chico farmer and winemaker Berton Bertagna is worried about water allocations for his 600 acres of orchards.

PHOTO by melanie mactavish

But environmentalists say that, to support the Sacramento River’s fisheries, a substantial portion of its water must be allowed to flow undisturbed to the sea.

“It really gets me when people say that the water flowing into the Bay is wasted,” said Jerry Cadagan, a longtime water activist in Sonora. “It’s not wasted. It’s essential to keep alive a valuable fishery. Salmon is a food source, healthy just like pomegranates and almonds.”

Earlier this week, Northern Californians were reminded what it feels like when water falls from the sky. Umbrellas came out, and clusters of people assembled under awnings and bus shelters. The roads grew slick and fishtails of spray erupted from passing cars in the streets. It was pouring.

But it wasn’t nearly enough.

The culprit for the ongoing drought is a massive ridge of high pressure that remains anchored over the North Pacific Ocean. It has hardly shifted for 14 months and is creating a massive atmospheric rain shadow on the West Coast. Storms that would normally float eastward over California with the jet stream are being deflected northward by the ridge, which is roughly the size of the Andes Mountains. When this devastating barrier will dissipate is unclear.

Randall Osterhuber, the lead researcher at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory near Donner Pass, said if this ridge breaks down, another large storm or two could still swoop in over California, soaking the valleys and cloaking the mountains.

“But every day that it’s clear and dry,” he said, “the statistical chances that we’ll have an average or almost-average water year decline significantly.”

Cadagan, who has lived through at least two severe droughts in California, says this one takes things to a new level. He is confident the state’s residential water supplies will last the rest of 2014.

“But if we don’t get rain this winter, and if next fall is dry, too, we’re going to see people leaving the state,” he said.

Ed George, a farmer near Davis, believes he may survive the year. He uses water from wells, which he suspects to be part of a subterranean water system fed and recharged by the perennial supply of Lake Berryessa—rather than the drainage of the dwindling Cache Creek—and George believes his water supply will hold out. He hopes so, anyway. Other growers, he is certain, will produce little to nothing in 2014.

“Food is going to be really expensive,” he predicted.

George expects that ranchers will have to cull their herds of cattle when the dry spring provides no ample pasture.

And in fact, that’s happening locally already, according to Orland-based cattle rancher Shannon Douglass. Last week, Douglass began selling some black Angus steers from the 50-head herd she and her husband, Kelly, have built up over the last decade.

“I just announced to customers this week that we will be out of beef very shortly, as we are forced to sell livestock that we would have kept for finishing,” she told the CN&R.

Berton Bertagna, a fourth-generation farmer in Butte County, has more than 600 acres of orchards that could go dry this year if his water supply is cut off. Worse, his groundwater supply is dwindling—evidence, perhaps, that we are overdrafting the Tuscan Aquifer.

“I had to lower three different wells last year,” he said, adding that many other area farmers will be tapping the aquifer if they receive no allocation from their irrigation districts.

“We’re all really worried about the groundwater supply,” Bertagna said. “Those of us who have orchards need to water those trees every year. But we might not get rain, and we might not get snowpack, so we’re just hoping we can get our trees through the year with our wells.”