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‘We can’t make it rain’: California farmers left out to dry as US government allots no water | California drought

Officials are preparing for yet another critical water year in California as the state – along with most of the American west – remains mired in drought.

The federal government said Wednesday that it won’t deliver water to farmers in California’s agricultural belt, which produces roughly a quarter of the nation’s food, due to the extreme water shortages that are expected to deepen if the direly dry conditions continue through March.

“It’s devastating to the agricultural economy and to those people that rely on it,” said Ernest Conant, regional director for the US Bureau of Reclamation, adding that this year may turn out to be worse than 2021, when drought conditions forced farmers to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres of land. “But unfortunately we can’t make it rain.”

The federal government operates the Central Valley Project in California, a complex system of dams, reservoirs and canals. It’s one of two major water systems the state relies on for agriculture, drinking water, and the environment. The other system is run by the state government. This is the fourth time in the last decade that farmers south of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta have gotten no water from the federal government.

Water agencies contract with the federal government for certain amounts of water each year. In February, the federal government announces how much of those contracts can be fulfilled based on how much water is available. The government then updates the allocations throughout the year based on conditions. Last year, farmers started the year with a 5% allocation from the federal government but ended at 0% as the drought intensified. This year, the federal government is starting farmers at 0% while water for other purposes, including drinking and industrial uses, is at 25%.

California depends on winter storms to refill its reservoirs and produce a strong snowpack, which both serve as essential water savings accounts relied on through the rest of the year. But so far, the first two months in 2022 have offered little reprieve. The northern Sierra mountains, which are important for filling some of the state’s biggest reservoirs, have had just 1.7 inches of rain over those two months. That’s the lowest ever recorded, breaking a record set in 2013, said Kristin White, Central Valley operations manager for the US Bureau of Reclamation.

The Central Valley Project’s reservoirs have decreased by 26.5% compared with last year. Even after record-breaking rains and above-average snow late last-year, the state is facing a 1.2 million acre-feet shortfall in the water amount predicted to be available through September, according to the California Department of Water Resources’ forecast. To put that in perspective, one acre-foot of water is roughly 326,000 gallons. It is enough water to cover a football field-sized piece of land one-foot deep, and typically enough to supply two average households for one year.

There’s still time left for some water gains to be made in March before the rainy season officially ends and officials will update allocations if conditions change. The state water system already bumped its allocation to 15% in January from 0% allocations set the month before, after a big December deluge.

Again, after weeks of clear skies and unseasonably hot weather, this week California got rain, snow, and a burst of cold finally breaking record-setting timespans of dryness in some areas, but the much-needed precipitation isn’t expected to make a significant dent in the drought.

More than 66% of California is currently classified in “severe drought” by the US Drought Monitor and most of its reservoirs remain below their historical averages.

State law requires both state and federal systems to have enough water available to maintain water quality throughout the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, a sensitive environmental region home to endangered species of fish. Still, endangered species of fish – including salmon – have been dying by the thousands because there hasn’t been enough cold water for them to survive.

“Fish and people need that water,” said Regina Chichizola, executive director for Save California Salmon, adding that environmental water releases are important because they keep saltwater from the ocean from creeping too far into the freshwater rivers.

John McManus, the President of the Golden State Salmon Association called on agencies and water managers to do more to stave off the harm to salmon during another year of drought, and said in a statement that even with the reduced allocations, too much water was going to agriculture.

“We’re likely looking at another year of decimated natural salmon runs due to water decisions that favor a small group of agricultural landowners over the interests of the rest of California,” he said. “This highlights the need for more responsible drought planning. When it comes to being responsible stewards of the state’s natural resources, water business as usual isn’t serving the state any more.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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