Citing two years of low precipitation and barren water reserves, California officials have announced a plan to purchase water from Sacramento Valley farmers and sell it to Southern state agencies – a program that’s been dormant in the Golden state for 17 years. The fear of yet another drought this year is pushing the programs revival: statewide precipitation this year has only been 45 percent of average, making it the fourth driest year of the 114 years on record.
“We’re hoping for the best, that we’re going to have a good storm season and be able to meet the needs of California,” said state Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow. “However, we would be negligent if we didn’t prepare for the worst.”
This “water bank” was last used in 1992, during the final year of a six year drought. Those that sold water were in districts holding generous, century-old water rights on the Sacramento, Yuba and Feather rivers. The buyers were urban communities in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. The largest buyer in ’92 was the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Schwarzenegger officially declared a drought this past June, stating that nine counties in the farm-rich Central Valley are in a state of emergency due to low water supplies after two years of below-average rainfall. In the Northern Sierra, this spring and summer were the driest on record since 1921. Additionally, 2007 and 2008 made up the ninth driest two-year period in 88 years of record keeping for the Northern Sierra.
“While we are taking action to address the state’s drought situation, there remains an urgent need for Californians to step up conservation efforts and for the legislature to pass a comprehensive water plan that will ensure California has the water it needs to keep our economy strong and our people working,” Schwarzenegger added.
Along with a shortage on water, this time around there might also be a shortage on sellers. Farm commodity prices are higher – especially rice – providing a larger incentive for growing crops than selling water. No water district sold more water to the state water bank in 1991 than Western Canal Water District, which serves rice farmers in Butte and Glenn counties. But general manager Ted Trimble said things are different now. He noted that in February his district had arranged to sell water at $200 an acre-foot to Southern California water districts in a sale separate from the state water bank. But when the price of rice more than doubled in March, Trimble said, almost half of the growers who were going to forgo planting some acres changed their minds.
“I just don’t know how much water we’re going to be able to make available to make a difference,” Trimble said.
Also, several of the counties tapped last time around now have restrictions on groundwater pumping since many neighbors of the water sellers were forced to dig deeper wells when excessive pumping drew down aquifers. Hopefully between conservation efforts and the water bank, California can get its water crisis under control.