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Today bulldozing almond orchards — tomorrow urban water rationing
Dennis Wyatt RGB
Dennis Wyatt

Tom Butler is living the new California reality.

The Yolo County almond grower has stopped watering perfectly healthy trees.

Instead of being shaken for eight or so more harvest seasons before their productivity nosedives, he’s getting ready to bulldoze them.

Welcome to the latest in California’s never ending droughts. Hopefully you enjoyed the two year pause.

The Central Valley Water Project operated by the Bureau of Reclamation is slashing water allocations to many districts serving farmers to zero.

What little water Butler can secure is going to keep younger trees alive.

It is a scene that will be taking place elsewhere in California including portions of the San Joaquin Valley that has not completely recovered from the 2011 to 2017 drought.

If the 2022 weather year is a repeat of what we are experiencing now, the odds are farmers in better situated areas due to water rights such as South San Joaquin Irrigation District may have to start thinking such dark thoughts.

Based on historic Stanislaus River hydrology, there is a good chance in the coming few years that the first 600,000 acre-feet of annual inflow to New Melones Reservoir that SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District are assured under through a federal agreement based on historic wage rights may not being robust enough.

No one is panicking at the SSJID but they are trying to stress the reality we are facing in Ripon, Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy where residents rely on their water to drink, flush toilets, and water landscaping as well as farmers to irrigate crops.

Conserve is the word. Ditch tenders are being super vigilant about spilling water – terminology for water that doesn’t flow into fields and orchards but keeps flowing going from canals into drainage ditches that dump into the San Joaquin River. It happens when water released during irrigation runs is not 100 percent used by farmers.

Technology installed since the depth of the last drought will help cut down that spillage. The district, however,  is doubling down for good reason. Even with farmers and cities being more vigilant the SSJID is likely to come close to the point where demand almost meets supply.

That’s not good with water. Once it’s gone it’s gone.

We’ll probably get by this year OK but it’ll be tight. The real problem is what unfolds in 2022 and later.

Reservoirs are in better position than they were at the start of the last drought. However, the hydrology is more pathetic.

Given the high odds of back-to-back – and even a longer string – of dry years, it is likely with each passing period of drought the odds of an all-out legal war on what water we do catch behind dams of the Central Valley Water Protect and it’s kissing cousin in the form of the State Water Project will be fought over what water remains and what precipitation falls and is collected.

We can throw all the money – or more correctly commit on paper – Gov. Newsom wants but promises don’t hold water. Only injecting excess water in wet years into underground aquifers, off-stream reservoirs, and bigger reservoirs such as raising the height of Shasta Dam do.

Newsom – just like Gov. Brown before him – has made a big production of money being tossed at California’s growing water woes.

What needs to be done is fast-tracking the environmental review process. If the California Legislature can conspire with a governor and lift the requirement of an exhaustive environmental review vetting for a Los Angeles pro sports arena, they should be able to find a way to speed up the review process for at least Sites Reservoir given water is more critical that NBA basketball to the well-being of LA as well as the rest of California.

Sites is proposed for western Colusa County to hold 1.8 million acre-feet of water. It is designed as an off-stream storage reserve to capture excess runoff during wetter years than normal just like the 2 million acre-feet San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos.

And yes, we need to do even more to conserve. That includes during wetter than normal years as well. Farm water use per acre continues to drop in California as does urban per capita uses.

We could start with banning ornamental front yard grass in new homes throughout California. Landscaping in many cities is responsible for roughly a half of urban water use. And lawns, by far, are the biggest water guzzlers.

This is not local issue. It is a California-wide issue.

It is about stabilizing underground aquifers. It is about keeping fish alive. It’s about keeping people fed. And it’s about keeping people working.

The canary in the proverbial mime for California are farmers like Tom Butler.

Unfortunately most of us have a big disconnect not just about how fragile and engineered our water supply is but also to farmers being the ones that grow what we eat and not the likes of the government safety net, Omaha Steaks, Applebee’s, Walmart, Door Dash and Amazon.

When farmers like Butler tear out orchards, thin cattle herds, and leave fields fallow die to a lack of water it impacts us all.

We need to connect our wasteful habits such as having eye candy front lawns that are water hogs on steroids for new homes to bad “green” policy. It is no different to Elon Musk swearing off — or at least saying he is — digital currency because the energy needed to “mine it” has prompted turning back on coal burning power plants which is going counter to the loud cry and hue about reducing greenhouse gas emissions not to mention what he is trying to do with Tesla and battery farms to store electricity.

Climate change — natural, manmade or a combination thereof — is not the biggest culprit.

That dubious honor falls to us as individuals.

The resources we squander add up.

Little changes morph into big differences.

There is a correlation between new $600,000 tract homes having lush statement lawns instead of water wise landscaping and creating a new norm where flushing toilets for anything but the No. 2 is a luxury.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation.