Drought Worsens Despite Rare August Rain

Growers expect to complete harvest without problems, but another dry year could be catastrophic

by Andrew Adams
Nearly 100% of California met parameters for severe drought when the Climate Precipitation Center released its Drought Monitor on Aug. 12. Source: Richard Tinker / CPC/NOAA/NWS/NCEP
Sacramento, Calif.—As federal officials note in the most recent report on drought conditions in the United States: “A strange thing happened on the path to California’s historic drought: It rained.”

A tropical system from the Pacific drew light showers and high humidity across much of California in early August. The rain and overcast conditions provided some irrigation relief and slowed the evaporation of water from storage ponds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, noted the rain did not provide any substantial relief because only a few areas received heavy showers, and most of that fell outside of the state’s key watersheds.

In Southern California’s San Bernardino County, intense rainfall Aug. 3 led to the surreal situation of some people suffering from flood damage during one of the worst droughts in California’s history. The water left as quickly as it arrived, and almost none of it could percolate into the area’s soil to provide any significant drought relief.

The USDA reports nearly 60% of California is now suffering an “exceptional drought,” with the remaining parts of the state experiencing “severe” to “extreme” levels of drought.

A report from the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences found the current drought is responsible for the greatest loss of water for agriculture on record, with surface water reduced by one-third. That loss has been offset by groundwater pumping through­out the state but mainly in the Central Valley. The report found the total economic impact to California so far has been $2.2 billion, and nearly 430,000 acres (or 5%) of the state’s irrigated cropland is going out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California.

The report found California’s farmers are weathering the drought, but their reliance on groundwater pumping is not sustainable if drought conditions persist. “California’s agricultural economy is doing remarkably well, thanks mostly to groundwater reserves,” said Jay Lund, co-author of the study and the center’s director. “But we expect substantial local and regional economic and employment impacts. We need to treat that groundwater well so it will be there for future droughts.”

Significant groundwater issues in the Paso Robles AVA and the serious overdraft in the Central Valley underscore calls for comprehensive groundwater management in California. The report’s other author, Richard Howitt, UC Davis professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics, described the groundwater situation as a “slow-moving train wreck.”

In an interview with Wines & Vines, Howitt said the drought has not had the same level of impact on grapes. He said growers mainly from the Tulare Basin have pulled 13,000 to 14,000 acres of vineyards because of reduced surface-water allotments, and because the expected income from that acreage can’t cover the cost of buying water. These vines could include table grapes and raisins, he added.

Better management of California’s groundwater would help the state endure future droughts, just as an improved system for storing and transporting surface water would help prevent excessive groundwater pumping.

On Aug. 13, state lawmakers in Sacramento, Calif., agreed to swap an $11 billion bond on the November ballot with a $7.5 billion measure that will address the state’s water needs while minimizing new debt.

Under the proposal, the state would take out $7.1 billion in new debt, drawing the remainder from unused proceeds of an earlier bond. If approved, nearly $3 billion of the bond proceeds would be used to bolster the state’s system of dams and reservoirs. The proposal won the support of lawmakers from the Central Valley and Southern California, but elected leaders from Northern California—especially those from districts in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region—were adamant the bond be “tunnel-neutral.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed an ambitious plan to build two huge tunnels to send water from the Delta down to Southern California, raising the ire of politicians, environmentalists and farmers in the northern half of the state.

State Sen. Lois Wolk, whose district includes several Northern California grapegrowing counties and overlaps the Delta, applauded the measure, which she said addresses critical water infrastructure needs while protecting the interests of the Delta. “This is a very different bond than the pork-laden one currently on the ballot, which helped some regions of this state but hurt others. This bond is good for the Delta and all of California, and it’s affordable,” she said.

Increased water storage will help long-term water supplies, but California really needs a string of wet winters to help pull the state out of drought. Unfortunately, a report issued by the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center on Aug. 7 said the chance of an El Niño weather pattern on the West Coast has fallen to 65%. An El Niño is triggered by warm ocean temperatures and can result in increased rainfall in California and the rest of the west.

According to the report, current ocean temperature and wind data indicate the chance of a strong and wet El Niño is declining. “A strong El Niño is not favored in any of the ensemble averages, and slightly more models call for a weak event rather than a moderate event.”

So far, the drought appears to have had little significant effect on California’s 2014 wine grape crop, which estimates put at 3.8 million to 4 million tons—not record size, but still impressive, especially after the record harvests of 2012 and 2013. The real worrying will begin if the drought persists into 2015 and 2016.

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