U.S. Water News Online
SAN FRANCISCO -- California's farmers and power producers
will be casting a wary eye at long-term weather forecasts, hoping for
a wet winter to replenish reservoirs drained to levels not seen in
At stake is the state's $27 billion agricultural sector -- the
biggest in the nation -- and the hydroelectricity that accounts for
up to 25 percent of California's power needs.
"If we have a second dry winter, it will be hard for all water
users in California," said Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation, which operates one of two large water projects
"This year was dry, the driest ever in the Klamath River basin (on
the California-Oregon border), and a repeat would cause more problems
in the state," he said.
From 1994 to 2000 the state benefited from six straight years of
average to above-average precipitation, leaving most reservoirs
But a thin snowpack this past winter, increased demands from a
growing population, few new reservoirs, and strict federal
environmental rules have created tight water supplies for many of
California's 34 million residents.
"It used to take a few years for water problems to develop. Now it
takes just a year for people to get concerned, and I think population
growth has been key to that," said Jeff Cohen, a spokesman for the
California Department of Water Resources.
California has called a series of special meetings for late
October to summarize 2001 water conditions and the preparations water
suppliers are taking to cope with a possible drought.
LOCALIZED WATER PROBLEMS
Meanwhile, squabbles over water rights have raised tensions among
several groups, especially farmers, who use about 45 percent of all
water consumed in the state.
The Bureau of Reclamation, bound by federal law to provide enough
water to sustain endangered salmon, cut irrigation flows this summer
to hundreds of farmers in the drought-stricken Klamath basin, leaving
crops and pastures parched.
Angry Klamath farmers succeeded four times in breaking open water
headgates managed by the bureau, prompting the dispatch of armed
federal marshals to guard the headgates.
In parts of California's vast Central Valley, home to most of the
state's fruit and vegetable growers, many farmers have worked with
only 39 percent to 45 percent of the water requested from two of the
region's main water projects.
To fill the gap, many farmers have switched on electric well
pumps, a costly alternative given California's high energy prices, or
have simply reduced their planted acreage.
Warnings have also been issued near Sacramento, the state capital,
to reduce residential water consumption.
And state legislation buried last year has been unearthed, aimed
at requiring housing developers to show they have enough water to
meet planned growth before any ground is broken.
Perhaps the only water-driven industry unscathed by last year's
poor rainfall was hydropower production, which was pegged "just a
little below average" due to a reservoir cushion build up over the
past six winters, Jim McKinney, a hydro specialist at the California
Energy Commission, said.
But hydroelectric generation could be trimmed if 2002 is dry
because that reservoir cushion would be depleted, he said.
"What all these problems ... indicate is we don't have the
flexibility in the water system we need. The pie from which to draw
water has basically been the same but demands have grown ... Our
belief is that shortages will occur quicker and to a greater degree,"
Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, said.
California has moved to ease the pressure building in its water
Last year, the state and the U.S. Interior Department signed an
$8.5 billion deal, known as CalFed, in an ambitious effort to smooth
out water disputes over the next 30 years.
CalFed would greatly expand state reservoir capacity, fund water
recycling programs, improve drinking water, and repair damaged fish
and wildlife habitat.
But the benefits CalFed eventually provides are unlikely to offer
much short-term relief, leaving many hoping Mother Nature will be
more generous with rain and snow this winter than last.
"We hope 2002 will be a lot better. What we're hearing from
members is they're fairly confident they'll get through a moderately
dry year due to water efficiency programs implemented in the last
drought in 1987-1992," said Jennifer Persike, a spokeswoman at the
Association of California Water Agencies.
But the group, whose 440 public water agency members deliver about
90 percent of the water used in California, doubts more conservation
benefits can be squeezed out in the immediate future, Persike said.
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