Drought declaration includes funding, but not for storage

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By Vicky Boyd

San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker doesn’t need the governor declaring a drought to know how dry the state is and how meager runoff is. He has only to look at the low flows in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from which he pumps irrigation water.

“We’re early in the season here in May, and I started irrigating just over a month ago,” said Strecker, who grows alfalfa and silage corn on Roberts Island. “The one thing I noticed is the water temperature is very warm for this time period when it should be colder because of runoff from the snowpack.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May 10 drought declaration covered 41 counties and about 30% of the state’s population. As part of his press conference at San Luis Reservoir, he also announced an additional $3.5 billion for water supply and resilience projects, bringing total investments to $5.1 billion over four years.

Missing from his funding plan were any water storage projects, much to the dismay of SJFB leaders.

“In California, it’s very simple. You’ve got to store water when you’ve got it so you can use it when you need it,” said SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel.

A cherry and walnut farmer near Linden, he has been a strong advocate of new water storage projects, particularly Temperance Flat Dam and Sites Reservoir.

Temperance Flat, to be located northeast of Fresno, would augment existing water storage on the San Joaquin River. It could capture significant amounts of winter and spring runoff that otherwise are spilled downstream because of inadequate storage capacity.

Sites Reservoir, planned for west of Maxwell, would provide off-stream storage and allow capture of peak Sacramento River flows. The water could then be used during the summer, when supplies are reduced. It also could help augment Delta flows for fisheries.

In looking over the list of items included in the $5.1 billion water package, Dave Simpson said he was “incredibly disappointed” with not seeing water-storage projects.

“It’s ultimately going to result in water being pulled from ag and going to habitat restoration and urban uses,” said Simpson, a Lodi area winegrape grower and chair of the SJFB Water Committee. “There seems to be no interest in increasing water supplies.”

That said, at least agriculture will likely see part of the $300 million allocated for implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the $200 million to help repair water delivery systems, such as the California Aqueduct, damaged by subsidence. And, Simpson said, farmers also should be eligible for grants as part of the $60 million State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program designed to reduce irrigation water use and greenhouse gas emissions from pumping.

The governor’s drought proclamation speeds approval of water transfers and changes to State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project operations to keep more water in reservoir storage for use later in the season. In mid-May, the two agencies requested the State Water Board approve reductions in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta flows because they said there isn’t enough supply to meet water right permit obligations for instream flows and water quality.

In addition, the Department of Water Resources is currently seeking needed state and federal permits to install a $30 million temporary 750-foot-wide rock barrier at West False River near its confluence with the San Joaquin River. Much like one built in 2015 in the same location, the wall is designed to prevent tide-driven saltwater from pushing too deeply into the central and south Delta. It would also allow water managers to retain more water in upstream reservoirs for later use.

The Bureau of Reclamation also plans to require the Delta Cross Channel gates near Walnut Grove to remain closed until further notice to help maintain water quality. Typically, the gates are opened on weekends through June and holidays for recreational purposes.

Due to continued dry conditions, the State Water Board in March sent letters to about 40,000 water rights holders warning of potential water shortages this summer. The last time the state sent similar curtailment letters was in 2015.

Strecker said it would be difficult to compare conditions from six years ago to today. But he did say he’s learned from the past.

“I’m a little bit more aware of what can happen and what the future may bring because of what happened (back then),” Strecker said.

Poor range conditions

The governor’s announcement follows one made March 5 by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declaring the state’s 58 counties as primary natural disaster areas due to the drought.

To qualify, the counties or those adjacent had to either suffer from eight or more consecutive weeks of D2 – or severe drought – or be classified as D3 extreme or D4 exceptional drought. In early March, San Joaquin County had been under a severe drought for several weeks, and the situation only worsened.

As of May 21, all of the county was classified as extreme drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor map from the National Drought Mitigation Center. The drought designation opens up various assistance programs, such as Farm Service Agency emergency loans if eligibility requirements are met.

Loans for both physical and crop production losses as a direct result of the disaster are available for up to $500,000. Loan applications must be submitted within eight months of the March 5 drought declaration.

A U.S. Small Business Administration economic injury loan declaration was made due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture disaster declaration. The SBA action allows small, non-farm businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and most private nonprofit organizations of any size to apply for assistance. Small businesses include those that do business directly with growers, such as truckers and suppliers of agricultural equipment or services.

San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner Tim Pelican said his office did not supply data to the USDA as part of the drought declaration. His office typically submits information only if there is specific crop loss, such as rain damage to cherries.

But his office recently began a survey of the county’s range conditions, and the results will be forwarded to USDA. The data could be used to justify additional assistance programs.

Although the survey is in the early stages, Pelican said, “I’m going to say it’s not looking good. Generally, we wait until the end of the water year. But obviously, no matter what happens, we don’t think the water year is going to produce a lot more for us.”

Kenny Watkins, who has a cow-calf and hay operation with his brother near Linden, knows firsthand how bad range conditions are. He sold calves early this year before they had made a desired weight because of the lack of feed. The price he received wasn’t good and Watkins said it has since dropped even further.

He keeps the mother cows and typically grazes them on hay stubble and other agricultural materials during the summer before feeding hay in late fall. Come winter, rains historically have prompted grass growth.

“Last year, some people never stopped feeding hay, and the Westside is a lot worse than we are over here,” Watkins said.

March, April and May are the prime months for grass growth – both for rangeland and his dryland hay – but this year’s lack of rain stunted the plants.

“The hay crop on the dryland stuff is a quarter of normal or less,” Watkins said.