The state Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced Dec. 1 that it would provide 5% of contracted amounts across the board for agricultural and municipal customers in 2023.
That may sound bad, but the initial allocation announced for 2022 was 0% for ag and only enough water for municipal contractors to protect health and safety.
At this early stage of the water year, it’s hard to get too excited one way or another about the initial allocation, said Ted Page, Chair of the Kern County Water Agency Board of Directors.
“We had a really good December last year, then it dried out and the state gave us 5%,” he said. “You don’t want them to throw out a big allocation number and then have to take it back. Then you have farmers borrowing money thinking they have water and if the state takes it back, that doesn’t work for anyone.”
He referred to 2021 when DWR initially told farmers and cities it could provide 10% of their contracted amounts, then had to pull that back to 5%.
“They have the 5% in the reservoirs right now,” Page said. “But things could be tougher than they were last year. We just have to wait and see.”
The agency is the second largest contractor on the State Water Project. Its contract is for nearly 1 million acre feet, which is divided among 13 different Kern County water districts.
The agency rarely receives that amount, however, even in non drought years as supplies out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been restricted to protect fish species and keep salt water from infiltrating the delta from the San Francisco Bay.
With a La Niña winter predicted this year, the state is preparing for a fourth dry year, according to the DWR announcement reprinted below.
“This early in California’s traditional wet season, water allocations are typically low due to uncertainty in hydrologic forecasting. But the degree to which hotter and drier conditions are reducing runoff into rivers, streams and reservoirs means we have to be prepared for all possible outcomes,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth.
Lake Oroville, the State Water Project’s largest reservoir, ended Water Year 2022 about 400,000 acre-feet higher than the previous year, which was the lowest storage level on record. However, Oroville remains just 55 percent of average for this time of year.
DWR is conserving existing storage in Lake Oroville in the event dry conditions continue. The initial 5% allocation would be met by flows from winter storms entering the Delta as well as stored water in San Luis Reservoir. If storage levels in Lake Oroville improve as the wet season progresses, DWR will consider increasing the allocation if warranted. DWR is also working closely with senior water rights holders on the Feather River downstream of Lake Oroville to monitor conditions and assess water supply availability should dry weather persist.
“We are in the dawn of a new era of State Water Project management as a changing climate disrupts the timing of California’s hydrology, and hotter and drier conditions absorb more water into the atmosphere and ground. We all need to adapt and redouble our efforts to conserve this precious resource,” said Nemeth.
California traditionally receives half its rain and snow by the end of January. Water managers will reassess conditions monthly throughout the winter and spring. Starting in February, the assessments will incorporate snowpack data and runoff forecasts. For the second year in a row, DWR is broadening the deployment of more sophisticated technologies, such as aerial snow surveys, that can collect snow measurements farther upslope of the Sierra Nevada. This will improve forecasts of spring runoff into reservoirs.
Water managers will be monitoring how the wet season develops and whether further actions may be necessary later in the winter. If dry conditions persist, DWR may also pursue submission of a Temporary Urgency Change Petition (TUCP) and re-installation of the West False River Emergency Drought Salinity Barrier in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.