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Next Year

I went fishing today.  Not remarkable, I realize - but what is remarkable was the water situation on the middle fork of the American River, where we fished.  We drove beyond the town of Foresthill to French Meadows Reservoir, part of the Placer County Water Agency's (PCWA) Middle Fork American River project.  We started by fishing in the river above the reservoir, but there was so little water flowing that we decided to try the lake instead.  I'd fished the lake just 4 weeks earlier, and I was stunned by how far the water level had dropped - at least 5-6 feet according to my untrained eye.  The lack of inflow and rapidly dropping water level made me wonder what next year will hold.

Our irrigation water at Flying Mule Farm comes from the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) - PCWA's neighbor to the north.  While the watersheds that serve the two agencies are similar, their water rights situations vary somewhat.  PCWA provides irrigation water to many of the small farms and mandarin orchards in the Loomis Basin, and to many of the rice, cattle and hay farms in western Placer County.  At recent meetings, both agencies have assured us that they have enough water to make it through the irrigation season (which officially ends on October 15) this year.  They've also assured us that they'll have enough carry-over water stored in their reservoirs to make it through next year - if we get normal precipitation.

This week, I saw several news reports about the potential for an El Niño event this coming winter.  Last spring, long-range forecasters were certain that a strong El Niño was developing in the Pacific.  More recently, the intensity of the El Niño seems to have weakened, and the stories published this week seemed to suggest that the likelihood of above average precipitation in Northern California this winter is fading.  In fact, several reports I read indicated that this winter was likely to be average or below average for precipitation.

Total precipitation, however, is only part of the story.  The inflow into French Meadows, which was so low today, comes from snowmelt.  A warm winter, typical of an El Niño event, means that much of our high-elevation precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow.  In a normal year, we rely on snow to store water in the spring and release it into the streams (and ultimately into the reservoirs) in the summer.  We simply don't have enough storage to capture rainfall runoff during the winter and save it for the summer.

The issue is further complicated by the State Water Resources Control Board's recent curtailment order.  Under this order, "junior" water rights holders (that is, water rights that were issued after 1914) can no longer divert or impound water - to make sure that the "senior" water rights holders receive their water (California has a first-in-time, first-in-right system of allocating water).  This order means that water agencies with junior rights cannot hold back this water - it has to flow through their reservoirs to ensure that senior downstream users receive their allocations.  As I understand it, the State Board will leave this order in place for 270 days - through next February!  That means that any precipitation that falls in high country watersheds through next February will have to be passed through storage facilities - it can't be stored for next summer.

In our operation, the fundamental principle of our drought strategy is "hope for the best, plan for the worst."  We hope that next winter brings above-average rain and snowfall, but we're making plans for dealing with a fourth consecutive dry year.  Based on what our local water agencies have told us at recent meetings, I fear that they may be hoping for the best and planning for the best - in other words, I don't think they know what they'll do if 2014-2015 proves to be a fourth year of drought.

But we did catch fish today....


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