The Consequences of Drought

It’s official, California is in another drought cycle as are most of the western states. A look at the U.S. Drought Monitor shows a state mostly in shades of red.

The Governor has declared a drought emergency for 41 of the state’s 58 counties. The State Water Resources Control Board notified some water rights holders that they will not be able to draw surface water this year. The Bureau of Reclamation changed its allocation amount to zero for its agricultural water contractors. The Department of Fish and Wildlife is sounding the alarm that migrating salmon are in dire trouble with river water likely too hot for their survival. Local water agencies and districts are sending notices to their customers to conserve water and in some areas to reduce water usage by at least 10%. All this and it’s just the beginning of the summer season when temperatures reach 100 degrees in many parts of the state. The wildfire season is already underway.

With the Governor’s drought emergency declaration, the State Water Resources Control Board sent letters to thousands of junior water rights holder to stop drawing water from rivers. At the same time, the Department of Water Resources is preparing to install a $30 million rock barrier on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to keep salt water from encroaching into the freshwater estuary contaminating drinking water and damaging agricultural fields. Northern California reservoirs show diminishing water levels, making it difficult to supply cold water to send down the rivers to help migrating salmon and still provide water for municipal and agricultural uses. Wildlife refuges will not be receiving any water, putting many species in jeopardy.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced that most farm-irrigation districts drawing water from the Central Valley Projects are cut off this year. It was initially thought the they would receive 5% of requested amounts, but that was changed due to lack of rain in the Spring.  Municipal water agency allocations are slashed from 55% down to 25%, which will put pressure on local water districts in the valley. Water districts from the Oregon border to deep in the Central Valley have sent notices to their customers to reduce use from 10 to 20%. Some, like Westlands Water District, has cut water off for landscaping.

Farmers in California will bear the brunt of water restrictions. Many are making the hard decision to fallow fields or try to salvage what crops they can. Orchardists have begun pulling out trees in hopes of preserving what little water they have. Every commodity from the hay fields at the Oregon border to the rice fields in the north valley to the orchards in Central Valley are making those tough decisions that will impact food prices in grocery stores, employment numbers and the export markets.

What sometimes gets lost is the fact that wildfires also draw down water supplies. During wildfires, water is pulled from nearby lakes and reservoirs to help control spreading flames. The likelihood that 2021 will be a challenging wildfire year is probable given the number of fires so far. Not only is it getting hot earlier in the year, the soil itself is dry from lack of rain, making it easier for fires to ignite.  It’s going to be a challenging year for water suppliers and water users.

Staff Contact: Valerie Nera

Valerie Nera specializes in advocacy on agriculture, water, resources, crime, and banking and finance issues for the CalChamber. She joined the CalChamber staff in 1978 as a legislative assistant on agricultural issues. She also has lobbied air, environmental and privacy issues for the CalChamber. She earned a B.A. with honors from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from the McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific. See full bio.