Last year was bad. This year could be worse.
As the drought barrels into its fourth consecutive year with no end in sight, local water districts are bracing for another round of cutbacks, even those who survived 2014 unscathed.
Last year, a round of late-March storms rescued several local districts and agencies from the need to cut supplies. But this year, those game-changing storms are nowhere in sight.
"Last year, those storms bailed us out. That's really the difference," said Curt Aikens, general manager of the Yuba County Water Agency. "We're in a worse condition this year then we were last."
While farmers in the Sacramento Valley are more water-rich than those to the south due to senior water rights and a wetter climate, it seems unlikely that any district or agency will deliver its usual full supply of water, said David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, an organization that includes most of the water districts, companies and agencies in Yuba-Sutter.
Settlement contractors, who hold senior water rights, on the Sacramento River are anticipating a 25 percent cut in supply — the maximum allowed under their contracts. Settlement contractors on the Feather River will likely see a 50 percent cut in supply, Guy said.
Junior water rights holders on the Central Valley Project were told to expect no water this year, but allocations are not final. The Bureau of Reclamation has told its water contractors that final allocations will arrive no later than April 1.
"Nobody has made any decisions on any of this, but the trends are all pointing to significant cutbacks in pretty much every part of the valley," Guy said.
The reasons for the cutbacks is simple — major rain storms have been almost non-existent after December, and the state's snowpack is close to zero.
In 2015, the total amount of rain measured at the weather station at the Yuba County Airport had not even met the lowest monthly average in the first three months of the year.
In other words, Yuba-Sutter has seen 2.62 inches of total rain in 2015. The average rainfall in March is 2.88 inches. All told, the region usually receives 10.62 inches of rain through March, according to the National Weather Service.
There is rain in the forecast Sunday night, but it will likely not exceed a quarter of an inch, said Holly Osborne, a forecaster with NWS.
Other than Sunday's small shower, there is no significant system moving through in the next 10 days, Osborne said.
The snowpack, which feeds Lake Oroville, as well as local reservoirs such as New Bullards Bar and Camp Far West, is only 10 percent of normal in the Northern Sierra and Trinity mountains. Statewide, the snowpack is only 12 percent of normal.
Last year, the snowpack was 28 percent of normal statewide.
"That will be devastating later in the year," Guy said. "It will affect Yuba and Feather river water supplies."
BVID doing 'OK'
The Browns Valley Irrigation District is expecting a fairly normal season of water deliveries, although Collins Lake is considerably lower than last year.
The lake, which is the district's principle supply, is at 56 percent of capacity. Last year at this time, it was at 73 percent of capacity.
"We're doing OK here, but the state is in big trouble," said General Manager Ryan McNally. "This is probably the driest it's been, period."
The main difference this year for the district is that the length of the water delivery season will be shorter, McNally said.
Last year, the district delivered water for 187 days. This year, there's enough water for 180 days of delivery, although that would completely deplete Collins Lake. Last year, the lake still had water remaining that was carried over to 2015, McNally said.
In the meantime, the district board of directors has a adopted a drought ordinance that put in place several water restrictions.
Through the 2015 irrigation season, customers will not be able to increase their service from their current supply, and ponds will not be permitted to fill within six inches of the top of their banks.
Water is also never allowed to leave a customer's property and water transfers are prohibited.
Effects in the valley
The drought is affecting the Sacramento Valley in myriad ways.
• With surface water supplies lacking, water users will again rely on groundwater to supplement their supply.
But the effects of pumping are starting to show.
"The groundwater levels have definitely been doing what you would expect during a dry period," said David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association. "They're definitely declining, and we need some wet years to replenish them."
Wells in Colusa County, which has a number of wells the Department of Water Resources monitors, declined an average of more than 7 feet from fall 2013 to fall 2014. The maximum decrease was almost 29 feet.
DWR is taking measurements for the spring report, which will show if the aquifer recovered after the 2014 pumping season, said Mary Fahey, water resources coordinator for the county.
• Rice farmers took a heavy hit from the drought last year, when 25 percent of the crop went unplanted.
This year, rice plantings will again be reduced, but it's not known how much of the crop will not be planted due to water shortages, said Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission.
• Camp Far West Reservoir is almost full, but a lack of snowpack means that the reservoir won't be refilled mid-way through the year, as is usual. Usually, when the reservoir fills again, the water is delivered, according to the South Sutter Water District.
• Last year, the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District fallowed about 20,000 acres. A similar total is expected this year, said General Manager Thad Bettner.
• The Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority was told to expect no water this year and expects about 60,000 acres of farmland to go fallow, said General Manager Jeff Sutton.
• Water will not only be scarce — it will be more expensive.
The Bureau of Reclamation told customers that the price of water will double from about $40 per acre-foot to about $80 per acre-foot, said Sib Fedora, a board member at the Meridian Farms Water Company.
Fedora said rice growers in the district have indicated the price is too high, and they might not plant their rice and transfer the water instead.
What about Bok Kai?
The drought does have one minor positive: Attendees to the Bok Kai Festival this weekend can expect dry weather.
The weekend will be slightly cooler. Saturday will have mostly clear skies and temperatures in the mid-70s, said Holly Osborne, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.
Sunday will cool down to the low 70s. Clouds will accumulate throughout the day, and there's a chance of rain by late afternoon.
YCWA awaits runoff forecast
Water cutbacks could be on the way for Yuba County Water Agency customers, but nothing is certain yet.
The agency is waiting for the state's runoff forecast, which will be released April 8 or 9 and will dictate the water deliveries for the agency's eight irrigation districts, said General Manager Curt Aikens.
Overall, water conditions are tighter this year compared to last. Although there is slightly more water in New Bullards Bar reservoir, but there will be no snowpack runoff, which usually accounts for 30 percent of the agency's supply, Aikens said.
"Thankfully, the December storms produced storage to avoid a disastrous year," Aikens said via email.
If the dry conditions continue, the irrigation districts could see curtailments of more than tens of thousands of acre feet during the primary April through July growing season, as well as curtailments in the fall season, Aikens said.
January through March rainfall was only 20 percent of average, Aikens said.
Last year, the agency was able to make full summer deliveries to the irrigation districts.
Aikens said he expects the runoff forecast will result in operating to the lowest instream flow requirements on the Yuba River.
The $1 billion drought plan
SACRAMENTO (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders are proposing legislation to accelerate more than $1 billion in water spending. Here are the highlights:
• $660 million from a 2006 voter-approved bond measure would be spent to shore up flood control structures to prevent mudslides, levee failures and flash floods. What does flooding have to do with droughts? Lawmakers say extreme weather means sudden storms can overtake communities, even in dry years, and flood safeguards protect drinking water supplies.
• $137.2 million would be spent from a 2014 water bond measure to support local water recycling and desalination projects. Brown has proposed $6 million for desalination, among the most expensive ways to make drinking water.
• $136 million from the 2014 measure would help small and low-income communities boost drinking water supplies by digging new wells, connecting to nearby supplies or other steps.
Reducing water use
• $30 million comes from charges on businesses that emit pollution. A third of that money would go to farmers to cut down on water while irrigating crops. The remainder would be distributed by the Department of Water Resources, which has used similar funds to buy turbines to reduce water and energy use in the state's vast system of canals and reservoirs.
• $6.7 million would go to support the State Water Resources Control Board's enforcement of emergency drought regulations. The board has prohibited Californians from watering their lawns daily and letting sprinklers run onto streets and sidewalks.