For first time, 'zero allocation' of snowmelt for Calif.’s parched farms

Forecasters expect 2014 to be the driest year yet of a three-year drought in California. Water managers say they can no longer supply annual allocations to the 29 million people who take from the San Joaquin River Delta.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A visitor to Folsom Lake, Calif., walks his dog down a boat ramp that is now several hundred yards away from the waters' edge. Amid California's most crippling drought of modern times, state officials on Friday announced they will not allocate water to agencies that serve 25 million people and nearly 1 million acres of farmland.

Seeing little rain or snowmelt in sight, the California Department of Water Resources for the first time in history said on Friday that rural farms and communities will get little to none of their usual annual allocations of Sierra snowmelt to grow crops and furnish tap water this upcoming year.

As forecasters expect 2014 to be the driest year yet of a three-year drought, water managers in a state where water has long had a complicated relationship with industry, farms, people and politics say they can no longer supply annual allocations to the 29 million people who take from the San Joaquin River Delta.

The announcement is a “stark reminder that California’s drought is real,” said Gov. Jerry Brown. His warning of a potential “megadrought” suggests that the state’s dry period could last not just years, but centuries, raising the stakes for new water solutions and adjustments in the country’s most populous state.

To be sure, the 29 various agencies that draw from the critical State Water Project have other sources of water – primarily wells that draw from deep natural aquifers and manmade reservoirs – but it’s far from clear now whether those secondary sources will be able to fill the demand. Already, 17 California communities are about to completely run out of water unless the state gets some rain.

“A zero allocation is catastrophic and woefully inadequate for Kern County residents, farms and businesses,” said Ted Page, president the Kern County Water Agency's board, whose region will be directly affected by the water board’s decision. “While many areas of the county will continue to rely on ground water to make up at least part of the difference, some areas have exhausted their supply.”

Friday’s declaration will hit farmers and rural communities the hardest, since they will likely get none of their expected water from the Delta, which serves as California’s largest freshwater source and is also a critical wildlife habitat. What water is available will go to urban areas. The biggest problem driving Friday’s decision is not no rain, but no snow: The Sierra snowpack is only at 12 percent of its average.

California is one of America’s top farm states, a massive exporter of everything from almonds to wine. It provides more than half of all the nation’s fruits and vegetables. To be sure, a vast network of private wells already augments allotted surface water, but the extent to which those sources can fill the gap on the 750,000 farmland acres affected by Friday’s water board decision are not known. Already, some growers and farmers have been forced to take some land out of cultivation for lack of water.

Friday’s announcement was made to allow farmers time to plan their moves for this upcoming growing season. Farms consume 3 out of 4 gallons of the state’s freshwater.

If the drought continues, and if a megadrought does indeed develop, California’s reputation and importance as a crop supplier could be hard-hit, said Maurice Roos, a state hydrologist, in an interview with the Modesto Bee.

"Cities would be inconvenienced greatly and suffer some,” he said. “Smaller cities would get it worse, but farmers would take the biggest hit.”

Meanwhile, it’s not just California. Next door in southern Oregon, snowpacks are at one-fifth the normal level.

Snowpacks in the Rogue and Umpqua river basins are at 21 percent of average, tying the Klamath Basin for the worst in the state, the Ashland Daily Tidings reported Saturday. Ski resorts on Mt. Ashland and Mt. Shasta have yet to open.

"Our confidence is very low for any significant drought-breaking storm in the immediate future, but there is a shot, I guess," meteorologist Marc Spilde of the National Weather Service office in Medford told the newspaper.

"I don't want to put any silver lining on it, for sure," Mr. Spilde said. "This is ugly."

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