Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Dry months hurt, but a few storms could make us forget

Remember those stories last week about a record-setting, scary-sounding dry spell for the combined months of  January and February? You’ll forget all about them if we see a series of storms this month and next.

The record dry time is actually in the Northern Sierra, the most important watershed in the state, as my Sacramento Bee colleague Matt Weiser wrote. That snowpack melts into the state’s biggest reservoirs.

At the federal pumps near Tracy in the south delta.

But the Northern Sierra is actually in better shape than it was at this time last year. So is the Southern Sierra. The snow from the big storms in November and December is mostly still up there. It hasn’t melted.

The huge reservoirs in Northern California — Shasta, Oroville, Trinity — are all holding an above-average amount of water right now. We’re not hearing anything yet about water restrictions in the Bay Area.

The real concern is San Luis in western Merced County, where west San Joaquin Valley farmers get water.

It is not a mountain reservoir. It does not have a big, natural stream, unlike the reservoirs I’ve mentioned. It is one of the larger off-stream reservoirs you will find anywhere in the United States.

So, water must be pumped into San Luis from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, 120 miles away. The delta pumping has been limited to protect the dwindling delta smelt. So it San Luis only at 69% of average right now.

The reservoir is 2 million acre-feet — about four times bigger than Millerton Lake, though it’s not all devoted to the Central Valley Project. The state stores water there, too.

Many experts tell me they don’t think it will fill.

There are bigger questions now, because pumping for San Luis usually continues well into the warm season to provide water. To provide enough water, the reservoir needs to get continuous pumping from the delta in spring.

What if the weather stays dry? What if the pumping restrictions continue at the delta? How much water will be available  in May and June when the thermometer starts to climb?

Should farmers fallow a lot of acreage? Should they drill new wells and keep pulling water from the ground?

Smelt numbers change slightly

After I wrote the Sunday story about the water pumps at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, federal leaders tweaked their analysis of the delta smelt problem this winter.

The picture is still not good for this protected species, but it’s not quite as bad as it looked in early February. It might help keep the pumps running to provide water for farm and city customers later this year.

The federal analysis released last week says smelt deaths at the pumps  are actually only 64% of the total allowed for the year, not 76% as had been reported.

Two numbers had been adjusted since I first reported on the smelt. The number of fish allowed to die at the pumps was increased from 305 to 362. And the number of fish reported to have died at the pumps is now 230, not 232.

Time to regulate underground water quality on farms

A dreaded time has arrived for some farmers in the San Joaquin Valley — enforcement of the state’s new underground water quality regulations.

Thousands of farmers north of the San Joaquin River will be the first in the Valley to experience it. Farmers on 1.1 million acres in Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties are being told to sign up for it.

This campaign does not yet include farmers in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties, but the enforcement will come to their land in the next year or so, according to the state.

The program is necessary, say environmentalists and activists for rural towns with drinking water wells in farm country. They say water needs to be protected fertilizers, pesticides and other possible threats.

Rural Valley towns have some of the most fouled water in the state.

Farmers fear extra costs of this new program. They’ve had a decade to worry about it as the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board prepared the rules and enforcement.

To help farmers, ease the cost and organize the regulation, state leaders have allowed coalitions to represent broad areas. The East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition will represent the Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties, according to the regional board.

The coalition has about 2,500 members, but there are several thousand more farmers who are not part of the group yet. If they sign up by May 14, their costs will be $50 for annual dues and a $4 per acre for water sampling and expertise in the paperwork the state requires.

The costs probably will be different for other coalitions in the Valley, depending on the need for monitoring, evaluation and cleanup.

But farmers who go it alone without coalitions will pay more, state leaders say. On their own, farmers will have to get individual permits from the state and pay for their own consultants to do the work.

For more information about the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, call (209) 522-7278 or go to www.esjcoalition.org.

 

Sinking farmland is not a new subject here

Responding to my Sunday story, a few readers contacted me to say sinking farmland isn’t new.
You’re right. I didn’t have a chance to write much history.

My story Sunday was about the sinking land around the San Joaquin River and how it would affect the replacement of Sack Dam. It’s contributing to delays in the restoration of the river.

But I’ve been writing occasionally about land subsidence on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side for the last 20 years, and I find it fascinating.

Here’s the first sentence of a story I wrote on Earth Day 2007:

“The land dipped 30 feet between 1925 and 1977 near Mendota — and it’s still going down in what the U.S. Geological Survey calls the largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface. Ever.”

Layers of soil beneath the land surface deflate as groundwater pumping continues. It’s responsible for millions of dollars in damage to irrigation canals. And it could threaten such landmarks as the California Aqueduct and Interstate 5.

You might have seen the famous photograph of a utility pole near Mendota. The 1977 photo features USGS scientist Joseph Poland, who discovered the sinking ground.

High above Poland’s head there are two small signs with the years 1955 and 1925, marking the level of the ground in those years. As you can see, it’s dramatic.