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California tells farmers to expect no surface water deliveries in 2022

Heading into a third-straight dry year, officials warned no state-subsidized water will be available for growing crops in order to buoy drinking water supplies and stave off ecological disaster.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Barring a drought-busting winter miracle, California officials warned Wednesday that no water from the state’s main reservoir is expected to be made available for farming next year.  

Even in the state’s driest years water managers have been able to deliver meager amounts of water from Lake Oroville to agricultural contractors, but the latest drought has pressed the Department of Water Resources into new territory. Expecting a third consecutive dry water year, the department told reporters it expects to deliver zero percent of requested water to the 29 contracting public agencies that serve more than 27 million residents and over 750,000 acres of farmland.    

Instead of delivering water to prop the state’s $50 billion agricultural industry, the State Water Project will be operated solely to prevent an ecological disaster in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and ensure reliant cities don’t run out of drinking water. Wednesday's update is the earliest the department has ever issued a zero percent water allocation.

Last year, the state was only able to provide a 5% allocation and unfortunately for farmers, that number will likely drop if the Golden State remains bone dry. The monthly allocation updates have traditionally helped the agricultural industry plan and give it an expectation of how much surface water from Lake Oroville will be available for planting crops, with final allocation set in May or June.

“Here we are again with pretty extreme conditions,” said department director Karla Nemeth.

In a virtual press conference, Nemeth blamed the disappointing initial water allocation for 2022 on a host of factors, including dreary long-term weather forecasts, emptying reservoirs and climate change.

California’s rainy season got off to a rapid start as parts of the state saw record amounts of rainfall thanks to a late October storm.

An unusually strong atmospheric river doused Northern California, bringing widespread rain and snow from the coast to the Sierra Nevada. Sacramento set a new daily record with 5.44 inches of rain, while San Francisco recorded its fourth wettest day ever.

But the relief provided by the record-breaking storm was short-lived and bone dry conditions returned in November. Short-term weather forecasts are also coming up empty, putting drought-weary California on edge.

With Lake Oroville and other state-operated reservoirs sitting well below average, the department says it will conserve as much water as possible in case dry conditions continue through the winter. Water currently stored in Lake Oroville will primarily be used to prevent salinity intrusion in the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast.

“What we’re doing is really being proactive as we look toward next year,” said Ted Craddock, deputy director of the State Water Project.

Craddock added that the zero percent allocation could be adjusted if storms return to Northern California in the coming months. California’s traditional window for rain and snow runs from October to April, though forecasters predict a drier-than-average season.

Officials said 340,000 acre-feet of water currently in Lake Oroville will be held for seven water districts that have requested it specifically for things like drinking water and fire suppression. Completed in 1967, the State Water Project was built to deliver just over 4 million acre-feet in a year.

The water contractors, which pay for the operation of the State Water Project, weren't caught off guard by the zero percent allocation. They hope the latest drought will spur new investments into the landmark project and encourage permanent water conservation mindset in the nation's most populous state.

“Today’s allocation shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone," said Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, in a statement. "The impact of extended drought and climate change limit opportunities for the delivery of SWP water to support the millions of Californians who rely on it."

The federally operated Central Valley Project also supplies water to California agricultural districts, and it too is expected to announce meager water allocations. The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the state's other main reservoir in Shasta Lake, releases its initial allocation update later in the water year.

Though Wednesday’s water forecast is no doubt disappointing, this week hasn’t been a total bust for the state’s massive agricultural industry.

After years of farmers and water districts clamoring about the decaying state of California’s water infrastructure, the department earlier this week announced it was divvying out $100 million to repair four major aqueducts and canals. The money will help launch long-awaited fixes to the California Aqueduct, San Luis Canal, Friant-Kern Canal and the Delta-Mendota Canal.

According to the state, the canals deliver water to 29 million people and sustain nearly 3 million acres of farmland in California’s breadbasket, the Central Valley. Due mostly to the overpumping of the surrounding aquifers, land near the canals has dropped over the decades and caused pinch points that limit the canals’ conveyance capacities. Interim fixes have proven ineffective so now farmers and water districts are finally getting their wish: taxpayers will help pick up the tab for reviving the decrepit canals.

Lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom included the $100 million in the current state budget, along with an additional $100 million set aside for water conveyance projects in next year’s spending bill.

Nemeth says restoring the canals’ capacity will give the state more flexibility during major storms and allow more water to be sent to recharge the Central Valley’s depleted aquifers.  

“Restoring capacity in our existing infrastructure provides a critical link in diversifying water supplies by supporting groundwater replenishment throughout the Central Valley and water recycling projects in Southern California. It’s a prudent investment in our water future,” Nemeth said.

In addition to the latest round of cuts for farmers, new drought rules are headed to California neighborhoods.

Under draft guidelines announced Tuesday by the State Water Resources Control Board, local water suppliers and cities will be required to crack down on “wasteful water use.” Like rules enacted during the previous drought, residents and business can be fined for excessive lawn watering, running sprinklers within 48 hours of rainfall or using potable water for street cleaning. The rules will also temporarily halt homeowners associations’ ability to bar members from replacing lawns with drought tolerant landscapes.

The water board is currently taking public comment and will vote on the drought regulations next month.

During the press conference, Nemeth hinted Newsom could also reintroduce the mandatory water restrictions enacted during the last drought, as early as late winter or spring. She added the state and federal government have formally asked the water board for a waiver that would allow them to operate under weakened water quality standards in the delta as drought conditions persist.

“This is a really important year because we’re coming off a historic set of conditions and we really wanted to get at early planning for State Water Project supplies,” said Nemeth.

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