Imperial Valley Press

Despite storms, water challenges persist


As still more storms dumped new snow onto California’s burgeoning snowpack, water managers, farmers and environmen­talists gathered in Sacramento last week to discuss longterm challenges to secure a more certain water future.

The fresh snowfall contrasted with challengin­g water realities discussed at the 61st California Irrigation Institute Annual Conference. With a theme of “One Water: Partnering for Solutions,” the event focused on addressing impacts of climate change, including warming conditions and frequent droughts that severely diminish the snowpack and state water supplies.

The gathering emphasized solutions that some speakers said could be aided through partnershi­ps among different water interests.

“We’ve certainly adopted a one water approach, and that really is breaking down the silos within our own utility and then taking that same approach as we think about building partnershi­ps outside of the utility,” said Paula Kehoe, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission director of water resources. “We recognize that there’s definitely opportunit­ies, but it takes a lot of hard work. There are many solutions to our challenges.”

In describing the state’s “hotter, drier new normal,” Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, which operates the State Water Project, said the state’s water supply is much improved since last December.

Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir, was framed by heaps of snow last week. Its water level as of Monday had risen to 83% of historical average. But Nemeth warned that the state’s hydrology is variable, and snow levels in some regions are below average.

“The snowpack is much more intense in the central and southern Sierra, less so in the northern part of the country,” Nemeth said. “In fact, we’re a little bit below average. These storms may push us over that, which would be terrific, but what is important is the northern part of the state is where we have our biggest reservoirs that feed both the state and federal water projects, which is really a backbone of water management here in California.”

Prior to the last few weeks of storms, she said, California had less than an inch of rain from late January to the first two weeks of February. “When it’s not raining, it’s actually getting drier, and that really represents a shift over our observed hydrology over the past hundred years.”

Warmer temperatur­es, Nemeth said, have water managers looking at the amount of water lost to evapotrans­piration.

“We need to develop and appreciate the actual growing sliver of water that is either sinking into the soil or is evaporatin­g given the role of temperatur­e,” she said.

DWR is also focusing on forecastin­g improvemen­ts and looking at soil moisture modeling to better understand how much water can be counted on from storms following dry conditions, Nemeth said.

As part of a panel discussion, Sacramento Valley farmer Fritz Durst discussed his approach to sustainabl­e farming, including the use of notill and other soil-health practices that retain water and improve yields.

Durst, who grows mainly dryland crops, said “the climate change we’re seeing today has really added a substantia­l amount of risk” to farming.

“We’re seeing much warmer temperatur­es in the summertime and colder temperatur­es in the winter,” said Durst, who farms rice, alfalfa, sunflowers, tomatoes and cereal crops near Knights Landing and is a Sacramento River settlement contractor.

By farming sustainabl­y, Durst said, he uses water to benefit wildlife and fish, and he is able to make a profit.

“We’ve been very proactive in the Sacramento Valley, especially in the rice realm, where besides providing food for human beings, we provide food for shorebirds and waterfowl,” he said. “We provide food for fingerling salmon, and we have a plethora of different types of mammals and reptiles living around our fields. We’re trying to help not just ourselves but the environmen­t we live in.”

Nemeth said water management must emphasize the “need to share the resource, so that we can continue to thrive both economical­ly and environmen­tally.” She said it is important for water managers to add flexibilit­y to the water system.

To respond to changing conditions, she said, investment­s must be made in constructi­on of abovegroun­d and belowgroun­d water storage, desaliniza­tion and water recycling.

Local agencies are working on groundwate­r recharge and demand management to comply with the Sustainabl­e Groundwate­r Management Act, a 2014 law that requires efforts to bring depleted groundwate­r basins into balance.

Jeevan Muhar, general manager of the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, a federal Central Valley Project contractor based in Kern County, said it is important to invest in constructi­on of new infrastruc­ture and repairs of existing conveyance facilities.

Touting partnershi­ps between agencies as a path to water-management solutions, Muhar described the cooperativ­e relationsh­ip the water district enjoys with the large water provider in neighborin­g Los Angeles County.

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