Dams Needed to Deal With Drought

Len WilcoxCalifornia Corner, Water


This year’s La Niña weather event is bringing up bad memories for California citrus growers. The industry suffered during the drought years of 2012 to 2016 and the specter of a repeated drought looms with every dry day. The California Natural Resources Agency addressed drought fears in a recent report prepared by Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the California Department of Water Resources.

According to the report, the 2012–2016 drought was one of the most severe in California’s history. A string of five dry winters left some rural communities without water, interrupted surface-water deliveries to some farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys for two consecutive years, disrupted thousands of farming jobs, pushed some fish populations toward extinction, and created conditions that fueled some of the most catastrophic wildfires in state history.

The report said that the state curtailed thousands of diversions on the main stem Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to protect fish, wildlife and senior water right holders.

Among the problems impacting Californians during this drought, according to the report, were: drinking water problems associated with small water systems and private wells, mandatory state-imposed urban water-use reduction, vast land subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley, massive tree mortality in the central and southern Sierra Nevada, greatly increased wildfire activity and harmful algal blooms.

During the drought, water deliveries by the state’s two largest water projects fell to unprecedentedly low levels. Growers turned to groundwater to make up the difference, and heavy pumping triggered record declines in groundwater levels. This accelerated land subsidence in parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

State legislators enacted several major legislative and regulatory changes during or after the 2012–2016 drought. Surprisingly, they ignored the one change that would increase supply: adding new dams and expanding older ones. This is despite the 2014 voter approval of the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014. This ballot initiative was marketed as necessary to increase water storage to protect Californians against droughts and was approved by over 67% of voters.

Instead of following the voter’s mandate, the report says the state chose to:

  • Require local agencies to bring overdrafted groundwater basins into sustainable conditions by 2042
  • Establish new standards for indoor, outdoor and industrial use of water
  • Fund solutions for disadvantaged communities lacking access to safe drinking water
  • Increase the frequency of water-use reporting
  • Give the state authority to order failing public water systems to consolidate with better-run systems
  • Tighten landscape efficiency standards for new developments

With surface water allocations once again at a painfully low level, growers do not have any of those new dams to get them through the next drought.

About the Author

Len Wilcox

Correspondent at Large for Citrus Industry Magazine and AgNet West

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