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Some sobering thoughts as we mark the start today of the new (water) year
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

Today is the start of the new year that means everything to California.

And judging by the numbers we are starting with we could find ourselves in uncharted waters, assuming there is enough left to navigate.

This date, Oct. 1, marks the start of a new water year.

If you say ho-hum then you’ve never had a well run dry, watch an orchard in its prime production years wither into stick skeletons, or had the joy of saving washing machine and bath water to flush your toilet.

Given how cavalier many of us are when we use water and never have had to worry about water not coming out of the faucet; the following numbers may not mean much if anything. But for those that manage what is arguably the most pivotal resource in California such as South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Peter Rietkerk they are numbers that could lead to some sleepless nights in the coming months.

Shasta Lake — the 4.5-million-acre foot capacity reservoir operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and California’s biggest source of water — was at 40 percent of average capacity on Sept. 30. A year ago, it was at 81 percent of average capacity for the date. The 2019 number for Sept. 30 was 126 percent.

Oroville Dam — the linchpin of the State Water Project and California’s second largest reservoir with a capacity of 3.5-million-acre feet — is in worse shape. It was at 36 percent of average capacity for Sept. 30. A year ago, it was at 45 percent and in 2019 at 102 percent.

The trend is not encouraging. A repeat of the past water year that is one of the top five driest since records started being kept 15 years ago with the same amount of water use would be devastating.

It would essentially dry out or create dead pools where water trapped behind dams can’t be released at the nation’s 8th and 11th largest reservoirs.

Most Californians seem to take a “don’t worry, be happy attitude” toward water. Since there is still water flowing to water lawns, hose down sidewalks and such — which is illegal currently to do in every Northern San Joaquin Valley city — and ornamental fountains flowing, there is no crisis, right?

Droughts, however, are disasters that slowly sneak up on you. And by the time you finally face the fact you’re in big trouble it is too late. You can’t conserve water you’ve carelessly wasted. Once it flows out of the faucet for virtually everything it is used for it’s gone.

Those putting faith in nature pulling through this year are a tad reckless.

Odds based on 750 plus years of hydrology mean a lot more than the current climate change debate. And those odds are stacked against us even more so than playing the California lottery.

It is more than a tad alarming that Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to declare a statewide drought emergency by including Los Angeles and San Diego nor impose mandatory cutbacks opting instead to ask for volunteer compliance to reduce water use by 15 percent.

Given 93.9 percent of California is in severe drought including the Los Angeles Basin that has to rely on imported water from other water basins to meet almost all of their needs in a normal year is under even worst drought conditions, Newsom is playing Russian roulette.

No one should blame the drought on Newsom. But if he fails to tap the brakes now when it comes to further reducing water consumption by mandates that carry significant fines for noncompliance by essentially crossing his fingers the water year we are starting today will be normal or near normal, he’s basically passing in an opportunity to keep a bad situation from becoming a serious economic and even a public health emergency.

If you are among those that think the drought we are in can’t get worse, you might want to look at the signs.

Besides reservoirs such as the 2-million-acre foot San Luis Reservoir currently at 27 percent of average capacity for today’s date, you can see the stress in trees that don’t rely on seepage from lawns being watered.

The signs of serious trouble brewing can be seen in the upper reaches of the Stanislaus River watershed on the western slope of the Sonora Peak at 11,459 feet from the dearth of wildflowers and how the ground is bone dry due to light summer sprinklings that have all but disappeared in the last two years.

A third dry year that has a strong likelihood of happening based on hydrology of the past that clearly points to the mid-17th century through the mid-19th century being abnormally wet in what is known today as the western United States could easily roll into fourth, fifth and longer years of drought strung together.

Besides becoming extremely inconvenient food prices will skyrocket as you need water to grow it. Those that assume we can simply import food forget the fact other regions of the world are in drought as well.

They join others who simply believe we can tap into water supplies from nearby states without realizing we’ve been doing that for years and that drought in the Colorado River Basin is just as bad as what we are experiencing in California.

Those that harbor such thoughts have been lulled into the assumption we can somehow control nature and that the likes of Apple, Google, and such are going to somehow save us all.

And even though the Turlock Irrigation District reservoirs are in better shape, relatively speaking, than much of the rest in the state, Sacramento is already gunning for the water despite the district and others like the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and the Oakdale Irrigation District holding legally adjudicated front-of-the-line water rights to the first 600,000-acre feet of snow runoff on annual basis in the Stanislaus River watershed.

It is why TID, SSJID and OID have joined other water agencies to fight the state in court regarding Sacramento’s recent edict they essentially are going to take control of all stored water in California regardless of who developed it and even if the state’s own laws confer control to those agencies.

Sacramento clearly wants it both ways.

They want to act like there is not an emergency that requires mandatory cutback of water use by everyone so not to create political ill will among voters.

Yet at the same time they are so worried about being able to maintain minimum fish flows they have undertaken the most brazen and massive water grab in California history.

Clearly there was no popping of champagne to usher in the new water year that started today.