Hopes of a “Godzilla El Niño” significantly impacting California’s drought have been slightly dampened by underwhelming February rainfall and warm temperatures. Although January showed promising levels of rain, the “Godzilla El Niño” hasn’t had the effect on reservoirs as Californians had hoped. Models have forecasted rains to continue well into spring.

While the El Niño impacts may not be as great as expected, reservoir conditions from 2015 to 2016 have improved moderately. Some reservoirs, such as the Folsom reservoir, are regulated to maintain a conservative water level to account for snow melting and prevent flooding.

EL NIÑO MAY FALL SHORT OF EXPECTATIONSOne of the most important numbers to watch is the “Snowpack Water Content” from the previous year. While the average water content is still not 100%, it has increased to an approximate average of 80% versus the approximate 2014 average of 20%. Snowpack remains an important marker due to its ability to refill reservoirs in the spring as well as provide a source of riparian water for farmers depending on river water.

Another important indicator for an improved water situation is the “Precipitation Index Accumulation” where water storage in the Nothern Sierra, Southern Sierra, and Tulare Basin are listed at 115%, 109%, and 106% above average, respectively.

While the weather is helping to ease the drought, the Endangered Species Act has caused the level of water in the San Luis Reservoir to decrease from 65% of capacity in 2015 to 44% of capacity in 2016. The Act has severely limited the amount of water able to be pumped into the San Luis Reservoir. Between October 1, 2015 and February 28, 2016, total water inflows into the Delta was approximately 4.9 million acre feet and nearly 3.9 million acre feet flowed to the ocean. Only slightly over 900,000 acre feet was pumped by state and federal pumping plants. To put this into perspective, California received the same level of rainfall in 2013 but levels in the San Luis Reservoir were 500,000 acre feet higher than they are today.

The implementation of the Endangered Species Act and subsequent pumping restrictions has primarily curtailed the supply of water to Southern California, particularly Fresno County, the leading tomato producing region in the state.

During the drought in California, water has become less readily available from surface sources, leading farmers to rely more heavily on groundwater pumping to make up for the shortfall. As a result, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was passed in 2014 as a means of preserving groundwater supply. The act requires the formation of local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) that assess conditions in their local water basins and adopt locally- based management plans. The act provides substantial time, 20 years, for GSAs to implement plans and achieve groundwater sustainability. It also protects existing surface and groundwater rights.

With both pressure on the surface and groundwater supply, it is important that rain continues, despite the potential interruptions to tomato planting operations. The most desirable situation is snow in the mountain regions with the valley dry and temperature above frost level.

Water will continue to be an important issue for California’s agricultural industry, with resources going to the more water-efficient crops. Adequate conveyance systems, storage, and environmental restrictions continue to be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the future.

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