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BONE DRY & SCARED – Tulare County Faces Grim Water Prospects

Mineral King 2014-01-11 at 8.09.06 AM


It’s the middle of January 2014 and the Kaweah River watershed and all of California is bone dry. This picture of the high country above Visalia tells the story.The Mineral King webcam at 9500 ft elevation provides a doss of reality for anyone who hopes to take a drink of water in June or wonders how we can irrigate 1.3 million acres of productive farmland this summer in Tulare County.

Last year on this date Farewell Gap meteorological station in Mineral King showed a foot and a half of snow on the ground.The site gets an average of 37 inches of water content by April 1 on average.

Reservoir storage is at historical lows with only a 11,500 acre ft puddle in Kaweah Lake that holds 174,166 af. Lake Success has just 5151 af with storage capacity of 82,314 af. Sprawling Pine Flat Lake on the Kings that can hold one million acre feet – has 174,166 af.

If the mountains are dry, the Valley floor is parched from 13 months of record drought. In the calendar year 2013 Visalia’s rainfall total was 3.25 inches,a record low according to the Western Regional Climate Center that lists the existing record low for Visalia in 1910 at 4.10 inches. So far 2014 is no better.

Typically,December and January are some of the biggest rainmakers  each year with an average in Visalia of 3.75 inches. This year December’s total for Visalia was 0.20 and nothing fell in January. Nor will there likely be any. So far this water year that started last July – the Dinuba tree fruit region area has received just 0.88 inches according to Alta Irrigation District.

It’s no wonder the Tulare County Board of Supervisors are expected to urge Governor Brown to declare an emergency drought declaration soon.

water rally 2014-01-09 at 1.37.38 PM“Maybe that’s what we need in the state to wake the average person to the crisis we have ” says county Ag Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita who will be attending this week’s water rally in Sacramento January 16.

The Central Valley Latino Water Coalition is coordinating the rally hoping to turn out a big crowd to both find short term water supply solutions an support a new California Water Bond.

They favor both sustainability in the Delta and more water storage.

“Our whole economy depends on how much rain God gives us over the next two months” states Tulare city mayor David Macedo.”Right now the situation scares me death.”

“This the fourth driest December we have seen on the Tule River in over 100 years” says Dick Schafer, local water expert.  Schafer favors an emergency drought declaration that was called for the Tulare County Water Commission this week. Schafer is a member. The designation could allow some flexibility allowing more Delta exports.He also favors a bill by Congressman Devin Nunes to scrap the salmon restoration effort on the San Joaquin River that sends water down the river for habitat restoration.

Tulare County gets an important amount of its annual water supply not from our watersheds but the next watershed up the Sierra – from the San Joaquin River. Much of that water is sent along the Friant Kern Canal that hugs the foothills including about half to Tulare County farms and towns. The drought is threatening that supply as well.

Statewide it is no better.“This is my third extended drought period as president of the Association of California Water Agencies” says Tim Quinn and “more than any other – it is the scariest.” He says usually our reservoirs are down at the end of the water year. This January, mid term of the water year – our reservoirs are empty and the is no rain in sight.”

Quinn says water districts are going to rationing as the dry spell continues.”This is our third dry year in a row” adds Quinn and ”people need to wake up and stop watering those lawns.”

“The message has to get out  that we must conserve now and invest statewide in water storage and conveyance. ” Quinn notes that his old boss Metropolitan Water District is better off than most districts in the state “because they invested 10 years ago in water infrastructure.”

Visalia City Council member Greg Collins says the City of Visalia needs to be leader in calls for new conservation efforts.”We will be talking about at this next weekend’s council retreat. We have to do something.” Visalia loves their green lawns but Collins says he turned off home irrigation system last September. ”We may have to put with brown lawns while we try to save the trees.”

Quinn calls the stubborn high pressure system dominating the state’s weather pattern for months now a ”ridiculously resilient ridge” that is warding off the plentiful storms entering North America, pushing them tot he north or weakening like those series of storms this past week.

Saturday a report says Tahoe ski resorts got around 3 inches of snow  but like almost all recent storms – this one lacked the punch to bring much precipitation across the state. Hope that a pattern change comes in February seems to be ebbing in the latest models.

Climate Change?

PG&E forecaster John Lindsey had an interesting perspective this week on why it is so dry.

“For one reason, a large-scale, high-pressure ridge has continued to dominate our weather, never fluctuating far from the western edge of North America. This condition hasn’t allowed the normal wintertime storm systems to progress southward into California.

An area of high pressure about 3,700 miles away as the crow flies may be the culprit. This year’s drought pattern across California is related to a strong and persistent area of high pressure in the upper atmosphere near Greenland. The “Greenland Block” is a high-pressure ridge that has forced the polar jet stream south over the Midwest and East Coast.

There’s a growing amount of evidence that climate change may be altering the path of the jet stream, keeping storms farther to the north of California’s longitude.”

With no heavy downpour in coming weeks “The Governor is likely to declare a drought emergency after the February 1 Snow Survey” say officials.

The impact of the drought is being felt the worse in the Valley’s westside with less groundwater to rely on, In the Westlands water district hundreds of square miles may have to be left fallow if there are not a series of significant storms, said Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager recently.

A formal drought emergency declaration could assist in a number of ways but as Brown has said the “government can’t make it rain.”

Brown visited Fresno this week and the Bee reported the following.

“The bishops are advising us to pray for rain,” he said later Monday at a Fresno City Hall news conference. “I am planning to go beyond that and do whatever we can in terms of water exchanges, working with local farmers and water districts to maximize the resources that we have. It is really serious and my staff and administration are preparing appropriate papers to do what is necessary.”

Asked specifically if he would be declaring a drought emergency in the state, Brown said “not today, but we’re working on it.”

So far this water year the rain pattern statewide is reverse what it has been historically when rain was more plentiful in the north and a surplus sent south to help farms and cities in Central and Southern California.

So far this water year Northern California has an average Snowpack or snow water equivalent of 1 inch or 7% normal for this date. The rain totals are just 3% of April 1 average The Southern Sierra stands at 25% normal for this date.

60 Year Old Deal

With low north state rain Central Valley farmers in the prosperous east side of the Valley including Tulare County farmers – stand to lose big time because of a water deal set up some 60 years ago.

As it looks now it is likely the federal government will not have an adequate supply of water north of the Delta to deliver to the “Exchange Contractors” north of Firebuagh triggering a call on San Joaquin River water stored in Millerton. That will come out of the hide of east side farmers who depend on Friant Kern Canal water – farmers in Fresno,Tulare and Kern counties who irrigate a million acres of mostly trees and vines.

“We hope the governor makes a drought declaration soon that could spell some relief from environmental restrictions that limit the Delta flows south.”  This could enable the Exchange Contractors to get more of their contracted supply so they would take less San Joaquin River water says Friant contractors General Manager Ron Jacobsma.

In normal years, the Exchange Contractors are guaranteed 100% of their contractual water allotment (840,000 acre feet) and in critical years the amount is 75% (650,000 af).

Also,the Bureau of Reclamation and Friant contractors are apparently discussing a possible delay in February’s restoration water release from Friant Dam that could save some 25,000 af and agree to pay it back later.

Jacobsma adds“ the bigger issue for us is the potential to have to contribute up to 200,000 af of San Joaquin River water to the Exchange Contractors because the Bureau can’t find enough north of the Delta. That could leave us with virtually nothing.”

A number of water districts in Tulare County have no groundwater supply.

“This would be the first time in 60 years that this happened” says Jacobsma. These districts claim senior rights and receive Delta water in “exchange” for their historic supply from the San Joaquin River. The districts northwest of Fresno gave up the San Joaquin supply when Friant Dam was built.

The Fresno Bee reported this past week “that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jim Costa, both Democrats from California, last month called on Brown to immediately declare a drought and to request a broad emergency declaration from President Barack Obama, which would expedite some water transfers, provide financial assistance and suspend some state and federal regulations.

Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, said Brown’s task force is meeting weekly to address concerns related to the dry conditions and draw up plans for dealing with it. He said specific conditions must be met before an official drought is declared.

“We do have to see how the hydrological circumstances play out for the coming month. That said, you know, the long-range forecasts, we’re not optimistic,” he said.”

Some water districts may follow what happened in Paso Robles and consider a moratorium on new wells to save what groundwater supply that is there. Restrictions on pumping have been discussed in Tulare County as well where groundwater levels continue to plunge.”They are digging new wells like crazy in the Tipton/Pixley area” remarks David Macedo. Macedo a cattle auctioneer,also notes he “has never seen so many cull cows sent to auction in January because of a lack of foothill grass.”

While much of northern and central California remains parched the Pacific Northwest appears to be getting more rain after a dry spell. The Columbia River forecast is for 97% of average river run  with the Snake River at 95%.Eastern Oregon and Washington is dry like California however.
In Arizona on the Colorado River so far the southern Colorado River snowpack is 97% of average.Unregulated flow into Lake Powell is expected to 93% of average.

California gets 4.4 million af of water from the Colorado River. LA’s Metropolitan WD appears to have more water stored for this situation   and the is some talk that they ought to be neighborly and share some of the supply in a critical dry year like this.

One glimmer of hope. Dick Schafer says historically an early dry winter  often ends with a wet March that helps bring back the year to 50% of average. We have a way to go with the state saying they can only supply 5% to water contractors.

One Response to BONE DRY & SCARED – Tulare County Faces Grim Water Prospects

  1. Trudy Wischemann Reply

    January 16, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Great article, John. I think I know quite a bit about California water, but with your experience reporting on this topic over the years, you’ve collected the important information and painted the picture in a way I haven’t seen. THANK YOU!! I will make the best use of the information that I can. Trudy

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