Deluge of rain won’t end California farmers’ water woes

After a near-record year of drought, California received some relief this week from torrential rains, the result of an atmospheric river hitting a bomb cyclone. The storms snuffed out the Dixie Fire, which has been burning in the northern Sierras since July, and put an end to Northern California’s grueling fire season. What the rains didn’t do was end the drought — or the water restrictions faced by many of California’s farmers.

“There are only upsides for agricultural producers as far as I can tell,” said Jeff Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, in an email to FERN on Thursday. “But the ‘up’ is pretty small.”

Mount says the storms helped recharge California’s groundwater supply, which farmers have come to rely on — and are at risk of depleting — as the drought continues. The record-setting rainfall also replenished several of the state’s reservoirs, some of which have gotten dangerously low. After a quick “back-of-the-envelope calculation,” Mount estimated that “as much as 500,000 acre-feet of unanticipated runoff made it into Central Valley reservoirs” this week. The storms saturated some of the state’s exceptionally parched soil, which means subsequent rainfall is likely to become runoff and fill reservoirs further.

But this is the second-driest year on record in California, and as the state enters its third year of drought, Mount says it would take “a half-dozen storms like this” for the state to be in good shape. Water levels in California’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, rose about 25 feet this week, but even after the deluge, it’s at only 27 percent of capacity. About a week before the storms pummeled the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared that California’s drought had become a statewide emergency, though he stopped short of imposing statewide conservation mandates.

“We know that the drought before us is the new normal,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot on Tuesday in a meeting with Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. 

Political leaders are already using the storms to try to loosen water restrictions imposed on farmers. On Tuesday, a group of Republican members of Congress sent a letter to President Biden and Gov. Newsom, urging them to issue state and federal emergency declarations so that as much stormwater as possible could be diverted to farms in the Central Valley. If the water is not diverted, it will course through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, replenishing wetlands crucial to migratory fish and birds. 

“This year’s catastrophic man-made drought has crushed California families and farms,” the letter says, “[and] government regulations should not and must not deny our constituents critical water from these storms.” It was signed by Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunes, and Darrell Issa, among others.

California imposed water restrictions on thousands of farmers and landowners last summer, and a newly implemented state law is regulating their access to groundwater, too. About 20 percent of the state’s rice farmers fallowed their fields this year, and almond producers have ripped out thousands of trees.

Farmers did get a brief respite from water restrictions in Northern California’s wine country, where the storm deluged the Russian River. California’s State Water Resources Control Board, anticipating the rainfall, lifted curtailments on the Russian River watershed last week. But the move is temporary — restrictions are scheduled to resume on Nov. 1 — and farmers in other parts of the state were not given this type of reprieve.

As climate change intensifies, California’s weather is expected to become more extreme, with long dry periods punctuated by intense rainstorms. And while this week’s downpour was one for the history books, NOAA warns that La Niña conditions could mean less rain than usual this year.