Central Valley

RECENT POSTS

After a Dry February (sigh), Drought Looms on Central Valley Farms

Farmers, used to water shortages, prepare for bad news

Sasha Khokha/KQED

Pistachio trees on a drip irrigation system. Drip systems can dramatically reduce water loss from evaporation.

UPDATE: Despite snow closing Interstate 5 over the Grapevine Pass on Monday, state snow surveyors returned from the Sierra today with more forlorn figures. The third snowpack measurement of the season showed water content in the accumulated snow at just 30% of the average for this date and 26% of the average for April 1, typically when the snowpack reaches its peak for the season.

Even though more snow is on the way, as I explain in my radio story for The California Report, Central Valley farmers are getting ready to face a fourth dry year in the last five.

I visited with Fresno County farmer Ryan Ferguson in his pistachio orchard near the Lemoore Naval Air station, to ask him how he’s coping with the news that he may get just 30% of the water he’s asking for from the canals of the federal Central Valley Project. Continue reading

Clearing the Air on Climate and Smog

By Lisa Aliferis

Why climate change and public health policy make good chemistry

A major study released today in Fresno details the direct link between higher levels of air pollution and asthma-related ER and hospital admissions. So, what’s that got to do with climate change? Plenty.

Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Tourists snap photos of a murky sunset in San Diego

“There’s a division in the public’s mind between global warming and health effects of pollution,” says Dimitri Stanich of the California Air Resources Board.

In reality, there’s significant overlap. Some components of air pollution shown to have harmful warming effects on the planet are also harming people, especially children, right now.

Let’s start with ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is different from the ozone layer, which lies about 15 miles above the earth (not exactly ground level). The ozone layer shields us from most of the sun’s harmful rays. Ozone is good in the atmosphere but bad, in many ways, at or near ground level. Continue reading

Central Valley Faces “Smart Growth” Conundrum

How “smart” is it if you can’t walk to the store…any store?

Jefferson Beavers

Reporter Sasha Khokha hits the road.

By Jefferson Beavers

When we decided to take a look at smart growth in the Central Valley, we wanted to see if the goal of compact, walkable living was a realistic option for the largely suburban, car-loving communities of central California.

So, Central Valley bureau chief Sasha Khokha decided to get out of her car, put on her walking shoes, and burn some shoe leather…almost literally.

As the story’s field producer, I first researched dozens of developments in Fresno and Madera counties. I looked for good examples of high-density housing and sustainable neighborhoods as defined by the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, the area’s land use and transportation planning process. Continue reading

The Central Valley’s Giant Sucking Sound

Studies reveal huge water withdrawals from aquifers under California’s Central Valley

The New York Times this weekend published a story and useful graphic describing new findings on the intensity of groundwater pumping in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

One eye-opening note from Felicity Barringer’s article:

“…the total loss of groundwater from the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins in California’s Central Valley from 2003 to 2010 was just under 16.5 million acre-feet — approximately the volume of the Lower Colorado River reservoir, Lake Mead, when it is full.”

Lake Mead is the nation’s largest man-made reservoir (and has not been full for some time).

The research, by scientists at a Massachusetts arm of the Stockholm Environment Institute, includes projections for water supply and demand in California and the Southwest. The article points out that about a third of Californians’ total water use is groundwater.

California Losing Groundwater Rapidly

Nearly lost amid the three-ring circus of Copenhagen coverage is the annual gathering in San Francisco of the American Geophysical Union. We’re doing our best to staff selected sessions there. Climate Watch contributor Lauren Sommer was there for some grim new research on groundwater in the Central Valley.

California’s Central Valley has lost nearly enough water in the past six years to fill Lake Mead, according to NASA scientists presenting at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco this week. Nearly two-thirds of that loss–20.3 cubic kilometers of water–is from groundwater depletion.

With the recent drought, groundwater has been an important water source for California’s Central Valley agriculture, but getting a picture of that water use hasn’t been easy. Water districts haven’t been required to report groundwater pumping in their areas. That’s something the recent Delta overhaul package of legislation now requires, but according to Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine, the records to date aren’t very complete. Wells are sparse and the measurements have been sporadic.

The majority of the water loss since 2003 has been focused in the San Joaquin Basin at the southern end of the Central Valley, which is losing 3.5 cubic kilometers of water each year. The bulk of that loss is the result of groundwater depletion.

Famiglietti says this is due to a “triple threat” in California.  First came the drought, then decreased water allocation and more groundwater pumping. Finally, with less surface water, the groundwater aquifers have a reduced opportunity to recharge. Famiglietti says it’s clear that California is using groundwater at an unsustainable rate, which “poses significant threats to food production in US and the California economy.”

Groundwater basins in the Central Valley. Image: NASA

Groundwater basins in the Central Valley. Image: NASA

This large-scale picture of California’s groundwater comes from NASA’s Grace project. Twin satellites orbiting the Earth detect changes in the gravitational field, caused by the movement of water. Those satellite measurements act like a“scale at the bottom of the ocean weighing how much water is in each of these spots,” according to NASA’s Michael Watkins.  They also detect changes in snow, surface water and soil moisture.

The Grace project, though, is becoming a “senior citizen,” according to Watkins and is reaching the end of its technological life. He says quality of their water research, which has included other spots around the globe, speaks to the need for another generation of the project.  Famiglietti says, though this data can’t replace ground measurements, he hopes it will be taken into account by state agencies faced with making the tough choices about California’s aquifers.

Record-Low Water Allocations for Farms

Photo by Sasha Khokha

Deceptively soggy fields in Fresno County. Photo by Sasha Khokha

This morning’s news for Central Valley farmers was bad–but not unexpected: record low allocations of water from state and federal irrigation systems, just as growers make their spring planting decisions.

There are two major plumbing systems that supply water for Valley farms. This morning, the federal Bureau of Reclamation said the best-case scenario will be that ag customers of its Central Valley Project get 10% of their requested water this year. Zero is more likely for most, especially if the current season’s weather patterns persist. The previous low for CVP allocations was 25% in the early 1990s.

Also today, the California Department of Water Resources confirmed its earlier estimate of 15% allocations for farms served by the State Water Project.

The recent string of rainy days has left fields soggy but failed to make a dent in the current drought. Elissa Lynn, Senior Meteorologist for the state Department of Water Resources says we’d need four or five more big storms by April to bring the state’s precipitation levels up to normal.

It’s unlikely it will keep raining hard enough, for long enough, to bring California out of a drought.

And that means more fighting over the state’s water supply. Especially when it comes to the massive state and federal plumbing projects that pipe water from northern California to make arid Central Valley fields bloom.

Not only is there less water in the state’s reservoirs, but there are restrictions on pumping it because of legal decisions to protect the endangered delta smelt.

On The California Report this morning, we visited with a Fresno County tomato farmer, to find out how he’s coping. If you missed it, that radio story will be posted here sometime today.

For more on the drought, explore Climate Watch’s newest resource, California’s Water. Visit this page for access to KQED’s drought coverage, data and reports from the Department of Water Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and California water news from across the Web.