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Farmers brace for water shortages
canal in Ceres
There will be less water allocated from TID canals this year because of a shortage of area precipitation. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo

Despite some recent rainfall, state officials issued bleak warnings to farmers last week which caution them to prepare for water shortages this summer.

The California Department of Water Resources on Tuesday announced that cities and farms belonging to the State Water Project can now expect to receive just five percent of requested supplies this year, down from the projected 10 percent allocation anticipated in December. Just the day before, the State Water Resources Board told water users to start taking precautions now for water shortages expected later in the year.

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “The Department of Water Resources is working with our federal and state partners to plan for the impacts of limited water supplies this summer for agriculture as well as urban and rural water users. We encourage everyone to look for ways to use water efficiently in their everyday lives.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly 91 percent of California is currently experiencing moderate to exceptional drought. While some may had hoped for a “March miracle” to bring some much-needed rainfall, there wasn’t nearly enough precipitation to make a difference.

Turlock Irrigation District Hydrologist Olivia Cramer stated during the board meeting on Tuesday that a total of 3.01 inches of rain had fallen in the Tuolumne River Watershed through March 21, or about 55 percent of the historical average of 5.47 inches for March. The water year, which began Sept. 1, 2020 and runs through the end of August 2021, has seen the watershed so far receive 17.2 inches of precipitation, or about 60 percent of the average of 30.55 inches. 

Local TID customers and growers were allocated a 34-inch irrigation cap this season, which recently got underway with a little over 300 orders last week. To determine how much water should be allotted to farmers this year, TID examined the most recent drought on record, which began in 2012. That year, the Tuolumne River Watershed received 48 percent of the historical average in rainfall and growers were allotted 40 inches. In 2020, the irrigation cap was set at 42 inches following a 51 percent water year. 

The 34-inch water cap in 2021 is lower than last year’s, but ample compared to years past during drought conditions. In 2014, the allotment dropped from 34 inches the year prior to just 20 inches. The next year, 2015, saw TID implement a historically-low water cap of 18 inches. By 2016, however, that number was doubled and the allotment was set at 36 inches. 

As of March 10, the state’s snowpack was only 58 percent of average. Reservoir and groundwater levels throughout California are significantly below average; Don Pedro Reservoir currently has about 250,000 fewer acre-feet in storage than it did last year at this time. 

Though a drought has not officially been announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom – then Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the most recent drought in 2017 – U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack designated 50 California counties, including Stanislaus, as primary natural disaster areas earlier this month due to the drought. This gives farmers the next eight months to apply for assistance through the Farm Service Agency, including emergency loans.

“Continued dry conditions can threaten water supplies, impair critical habitat, reduce recreational opportunities, and create uncertainty for all water users,” said the DWR memo sent to farmers throughout the state this week. “...Your early efforts can help minimize the potential impact of water management actions on businesses, homes, farms, and California’s public trust resources. Start planning now for potential water supply shortages later this year and identify practical actions you can take to increase drought resilience, such as increasing water conservation measures, reducing irrigated acreage, managing herd size, using innovative irrigation and monitoring technologies, or diversifying your water supply portfolio.”

For more information on the current drought statistics, visit