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Executive Summary for March 18th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key developments in the California drought, including how much of a dent recent rains have made. We also look at the latest allocations from the State Water Project and job growth in the agricultural sector.

Published on March 18, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

It Rained, Can We Stop Conserving?

A stormy first half of March has left its mark in Northern California reservoirs. As of Monday, Lake Shasta, the state’s biggest reservoir, was at 106 percent of the historical average (81 percent of capacity). And Lake Oroville, the second biggest reservoir, was at 101 percent of the historical average (73 percent of capacity). Although smaller, Folsom Lake climbed back from a historic low earlier this winter to hit 120 percent of the historical average (72 percent of capacity). Central Valley and Southern California reservoirs haven’t fared as well.

The Sierra Nevada mountains are accumulating snow, but not enough yet to mean we’re clear of drought. As of Tuesday, the northern Sierra was at 103 percent of normal, the central Sierra at 93 percent of normal, and the southern region at 80 percent of normal for this time of year. The Sierra snowpack is often referred to as the state’s biggest reservoir, and it now sits at 92 percent of normal.

There have been small improvements in the drought monitor, although 99 percent of the state still remains abnormally dry. Areas of moderate drought dropped from 97 to 93 percent and severe drought fell from 83 to 73 percent. Still, 56 percent of the California is in extreme drought and 34 percent in exceptional drought.

With March adding significant precipitation so far, the state’s water conservation mandates could be eased later in the spring. “[Water Board Chair Felicia] Marcus said that when these reservoir levels are factored in with relatively normal Sierra snowpack, the state’s water picture has grown bright enough for officials to consider relaxing the conservation orders in place since June,” reported the Sacramento Bee.

As encouraging as that sounds, it doesn’t mean California is out of the woods yet, and conservation should not ease up, Marcus cautioned, especially since statewide reservoir totals are still below normal.

SWP Deliveries Upped

KVPR, a public radio station covering the Central Valley, aired an interview with farmer Joe Del Bosque on Wednesday. Despite recent rains, Del Bosque said he intends to fallow 40 percent of his acreage and expects little to no water. “Water agency guys think it will come out zero and then maybe by some miracle we could get a little bit later in the year,” he said. “But we don’t anticipate very much. Maybe it’ll go to 10 percent.”

Del Bosque receives water through the Central Valley Project, which has yet to release numbers for their allocations this year. But yesterday the State Water Project upped its allocation to 45 percent for its 29 contractors. Last month the number was 30 percent, and back in December it was as low as 10 percent.

It’s been a decade since any State Water Project contractors received a 100 percent allocation, but this year is the most since 2012.

However, despite drastic water cutbacks last year and in the several prior, the economic engines of the agriculture industry in the state keep chugging along. Numbers from 2015 now show that despite fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of land, the industry managed to come out ahead in jobs by 30,000 – a 7 percent increase from the previous year.

“One economist said the figures call into question agriculture’s claims that it hasn’t been getting its fair share of California’s water supply,” the Sacramento Bee reported. “Others said the growth in employment is a natural consequence of a shift to more labor-intensive permanent crops such as almonds.

Of course, many Central Valley farmers have kept business going by borrowing from nature’s bank account – groundwater reserves, which are now vastly overpumped in places. This has been one thing that helped enable the industry to continue to grow throughout the four years of California’s drought so far.

Although as Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at University of California Davis told Water Deeply in February, “The average conceals the individual impacts.” Robust economic numbers from industry as a whole doesn’t mean that there aren’t agricultural communities and workers still in very tough shape in parts of the state.

Top image: Snowboarders walk up to a lift Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, at the Northstar California Resort in Truckee, Calif. In the Sierra Nevada, a winter storm dropped 1 to 2 feet of light powdery snow late Wednesday, adding to a snowpack that could ease but not end drought conditions when it melts in the spring. (Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press)

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