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Shades of 1977: SSJID not out of the woods

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POSTED December 30, 2013 9:39 p.m.

 

You may have noticed the abundant warm sunny days over these past several weeks of fall. 

On Saturday, Dec. 21, we officially entered the winter season and the week immediately leading up to winter was extremely cold and dry. The one common thread that followed every change of season in 2013 is they were all extremely dry. In fact, 2013 will be California’s driest year on record. The Sierra watershed that feeds the Stanislaus River saw just 3.77 inches of precipitation in calendar year 2013. In San Francisco, average annual precipitation is 15.18 inches but only 2.12 inches fell in 2013. Looking ahead, it appears 2014 will not start out any better with January forecasts showing very little precipitation and February only slightly better.  

Normally in a dry year California can call on its many reservoirs to provide water for irrigation and municipal drinking supplies. California reservoirs store just over 20 million acre feet of water. In a normal year we would start January with about 13 million acre feet in storage. Because the past two years have seen below normal rainfall, the reservoirs only have 8.6 million acre feet today so we are starting 2014 at a deficit of 4.2 million acre feet or about 40% below normal. That means we will need to see substantially more rain and snow (40% above average) in January through April just to bring our reservoirs back to normal. With below normal precipitation being forecast for January and February agriculture in the west side of the San Joaquin Valley will have to forego planting and those farms with trees, vines and other permanent crops will see their orchards irrigated only to sustain the tree stock but with little or no hope for producing a crop, or worse, much of the permanent orchards may very well dye.

The shortage of precipitation, now entering the third consecutive year, is exacerbated by the heavy groundwater pumping that has occurred over the past two summers. With wells in parts of the Valley over 1,000 feet deep and areas as far north as Merced experiencing subsidence of land, the ability to rely on groundwater this summer will not be an option for many parts of  the state

The California Department of Water Resources started in earnest on Dec. 17 to develop a strategy to cope with the threat of a drought in 2014. Relaxing many of the regulations that dictate how water is transferred from those entities that have senior water rights to those that don’t and consideration of a declaration by the Governor for a State of Emergency will facilitate water transfers but the question remains, will there be any water to transfer? And, if there is some water available the prices will be extremely high. Water is currently being proposed for summer 2014 delivery at over $300 per acre foot.

South San Joaquin Irrigation District jointly holds senior water rights along with Oakdale Irrigation District and we have a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that provides us the ability to hold over water in a “conservation account” in those wet years in which the Districts don’t use all of their water.  Currently the conservation account has approximately 150,000AF available to the two Districts.

 

The record dry year in modern memory was 1976/77. In that water year, which starts on July 1 and runs through June 30, the Stanislaus River watershed had just 6.24 inches of precipitation between July 1 and Dec, 31. This year (2013) from July1 through Dec. 31 there has only been 4.30 inches recorded. That’s right; we are starting 2014 at an astounding 31% below the driest year on record. Forecasts show the drought continuing into early 2014, with January forecasted to have precipitation at 22 percent of the average year. February is forecasted at 45 percent of the historic average and March is forecasted at 65 percent of historic average. The average annual precipitation for the Stanislaus River watershed is 37.48 inches. If the heavens were to open up and give us just the average precipitation between now and July 31 we would still be 25% below normal for the year.

Now for the real problem, most of California’s major reservoirs are also at historic low levels. The New Melones reservoir will end the year with only 1,046,000 acre feet out of a 2,419,523 AF capacity. That is 43% of capacity with little hope of filling enough to allow water to flow to farms and cities south of the Delta.

We are fortunate here in SSJID’s service territory in that we have made significant investments in the past six years in conservation measures including converting thousands of acres from flood to drip and sprinklers which require less water for crop production. Our local groundwater basin is relatively stable and very shallow compared to most of the Central Valley. That said; let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that we are out of the woods for this year. Yes, we will be far better off than most of the rest of the State. We have some difficult decisions in the next few weeks including whether to schedule a late January irrigation run. January irrigation requires “charging” the irrigation canals which requires about 10,000 AF of water on top of the 8,000-10,000 AF necessary for such a cycle. This represent a heavy loss of water should we find it necessary to curtail deliveries later in the summer.

It is common for longtime residents in the Central valley to say… “I hope we never see anything like 1977 again.” Unfortunately, we are indeed seeing it and unless things improve, those just may look like the good old days.

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