Napa County strings together a ‘living’ river


Black-necked stilts hunt in restored Napa River mudflats. Recent habitat improvements have rapidly attracted desirable native species such as these to the downtown area. Photo by Amber Manfree, July 28, 2015

By Amber Manfree

In the historic heart of Napa Valley, a moderate climate and the alluvial soils deposited by the Napa River create perfect conditions for world-class cabernets. An acre of vines here sells for around $300,000, or 25 times the state average for irrigated cropland.

Yet a group of landowners have ripped out 20 acres of these prized vineyards to make room for river restoration, with levee setbacks, terraced banks and native plants.

The project runs the length of Rutherford Reach, a 4.5-mile stretch of the Napa River between St. Helena and Oakville. Landowners say the changes will bring economic benefits over the long term by reducing crop losses from floods and plant disease. Most of all, they feel good about giving back to the river that has brought them so much.

Rutherford Reach is one several sites undergoing major habitat and flood control improvements on the Napa River. Some projects started more than 40 years ago. Others are just getting off the ground.

Far from postage-stamp restorations, these efforts are steadily transforming a huge swath of wetlands in a very lived-in area, re-establishing geomorphic function at the landscape scale.

Innovative funding, inclusive planning and adaptive management power these projects and offer lessons for river restoration elsewhere.

With the completion of ongoing projects, tens of thousands of acres and about 60 percent of the Napa River’s length will have been rejuvenated with improved habitat, intact geomorphic function and reconnected floodplains. Map by Amber Manfree/UC Davis

With the completion of ongoing projects, tens of thousands of acres and about 60 percent of the Napa River’s length will have been restored with improved habitat, intact geomorphic function and reconnected floodplains. Map by Amber Manfree/UC Davis

Here’s a closer look at three major flood control and river rejuvenation projects on the Napa: Rutherford Reach, downtown Napa and the lower Napa River:

Rutherford Reach: a landowner-­initiated restoration

For decades, landowners along the Rutherford Reach struggled with bank instability and floods. The river was confined to create more space for vineyards while upstream dams reduced sediment delivery, leading to incision and eventually lowering the riverbed six to nine feet.

Without a healthy stream profile, desirable river processes and species were lost. Invasive plants such as giant reed and Himalayan blackberry overtook the banks, further degrading habitat and hosting problem insects. 

Then, in 2002, a group of influential vintners organized as the Rutherford Dust Society approached Napa County about partnering to restore the reach, and a new path to restoration unfolded. The landowners:

  • Led the initiative and were involved throughout the planning process
  • Are making meaningful contributions of land and money
  • While motivated in part by economic considerations, they find conservation to be its own reward

More than two dozen landowners support the $20 million restoration and its long-term maintenance, each paying an annual fee based on the linear feet of river crossing their property. Altogether, the landowners will contribute about $2 million over 20 years. The project also is supported with $12 million from a county bond measure and $7.7 million in state and federal grants.

County partnership gives landowners better control over the spread of Pierce’s disease, a grapevine-damaging bacterium spread by sharpshooter insects, said Jeremy Sarrow, a specialist with the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

A section of Rutherford Reach, before and after restoration. Source: Napa County Resource Conservation District

A section of Rutherford Reach, before and after restoration. Source: Napa County Resource Conservation District

The county can accommodate landowner requests for removal of riverside plants that host the disease, an action requiring a state Department of Fish and Wildlife permit. The agency generally does not grant these river modification permits to private landowners. Also, the State Water Resources Control Board requires landowners in this reach to show how their land management controls the amount of fine sediment entering the river, and participating in restoration can earn them a waiver.

Importantly, the landowner funding supports long-term monitoring of restoration, with any excess rolled into an interest-bearing fund for unexpected maintenance costs.

County staff have spent 10 years monitoring the transition from degraded to restored riparian corridor, revising techniques as they go. If something isn’t working – invasive weeds are popping up, a log jam blocks fish passage, an herbicide kills non-target species – the corrections can be made in the field, and landscape processes continue in the intended direction instead of backsliding.

With the first 4.5 miles of riparian corridor construction wrapping up, project managers are preparing to restore 9 more miles just downstream between Oakville Cross Road and Oak Knoll (See map). Together, these projects will transform habitat along 25 percent of the river’s 55 miles.

Downtown Napa: Redesigned flood control revitalizes city core

Napa was built on a particularly flood-prone site: a broad plain at the confluence of the Napa River and Napa Creek -- a flood hazard in its own right. The city center also is on the neck of an oxbow, the river's overflow valve during floods. Further, the buildup of water here is compounded by incoming tides, which push was upstream. Source: Google Earth

Napa was built on a particularly flood-prone site: a broad plain at the confluence of the Napa River and Napa Creek, which is a flood hazard in its own right. The city center also is at the downstream end of the neck of an oxbow, the river’s overflow valve during floods. The buildup of water here is compounded by incoming tides, which push water upstream.

At least 22 serious floods have inundated Napa since 1865, which means locals have been sandbagging their doorways once every seven years or so since the town was on the map. These days, a revolutionary flood control project is reshaping the city center.

In the mid-1990s, the community rebuffed an Army Corps proposal to dredge, straighten and armor the banks of the Napa River. Stakeholder disagreement and funding gaps had hindered flood control throughout the 1900s, but this time things were different.

Residents insisted on a design that improves the environment and makes the river a focal point of downtown. Agencies responded by assembling a community coalition of many residents, local nonprofits, the Army Corps and county flood control officials. The group engaged in a lengthy planning effort and developed a “living river” design. The plan was to accommodate both floods and the environment by removing armored banks and reconnecting the river to its historical floodplain.


Jeremy Sarrow of the Napa Flood Control District leads a recent tour of the Napa River restoration for the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. The stepped floodwall doubles as an amphitheater in downtown Napa. Photo by Stacy Han/UC Davis

Fifteen years later, 7 miles of the downtown reach have been transformed both visually and functionally.

The confluence of Napa Creek and the Napa River has been extensively reshaped, providing space for floodwaters and improved conveyance. Native plants such as tules, alders and willows stabilize banks.

Meticulously engineered placement of woody debris has made the streams more hospitable for salmon and steelhead trout. Napa Creek overflow channels as wide as boxcars are buried under streets.

Seven bridges and two railroad trestles have been reconstructed at higher levels and dozens of buildings have been torn out to make way for the river.


The 2002 photo on left shows the Hatt Building, an abandoned 19th century storehouse, and a more recent warehouse perched on a steep bank with poor quality habitat. Today, the Hatt is an upscale shopping and dining destination protected by floodwalls with a sculpture garden promenade and the warehouse has been removed to give the river room to handle bigger flows. Photos by Caetlynn Booth (L) and Amber Manfree.

Capacity-increasing overflow basins and the enormous Oxbow bypass look and function like parks when water is at normal levels. The parks, which connect to riverside walking and biking trails, are used for community events year round.

In all, planners estimate they have tripled the river’s capacity while improving habitat and bolstering the local economy. The Army Corps views the effort as a pilot project for flood-prone communities.

The lower Napa: steady, strategic land acquisitions for conservation

At the mouth of the Napa River, a vast wetland complex has quietly become the second-largest tidal restoration project in California, after the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project near San Jose. The reserve system grew steadily over the past 40 years, eventually encompassing more than 35,000 acres of wetlands encircling San Pablo Bay.

San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of the oldest of the reserves, now spans more than 10,000 acres near the mouths of the Napa River and Sonoma Creek. Building on this foundation, the Land Trust of Napa County along with county and state agencies have strung together properties along 12 miles of the Napa River to extend the reserve system north from Mare Island to Napa. Today, this network provides habitat, recreation and increased flood capacity. 

In addition, tidal flows are returning and marshes are renewing themselves across 13,000 acres of former salt evaporation ponds and hayfields on the north shore of San Pablo Bay, now part of the state-managed Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area.

The South Napa Wetlands Opportunity Area, 1,200-acre component of the flood control project, ties the downtown improvements with the downstream string of estuarine wetland reserves. Breached and lowered levees give floodwaters a safe place to spread out, increasing flood capacity and conveyance downtown and reconnecting the river to its floodplain and tidal marsh.

Both habitat and geomorphic function are being restored throughout the lower Napa River. With every additional levee breach, the area is increasingly hydrologically connected to the San Pablo Bay region.

Rejuvenating a sense of place

Each of these restoration efforts was driven by communities with a strong sense of place and an appreciation of the environment, along with a practical need for flood control and a societal imperative to bring back the salmon.

With the completion of ongoing projects, tens of thousands of acres and about 60 percent of the Napa River’s length will feature improved habitat, intact geomorphic function and reconnected floodplains.

With experience gained through adaptive management, project managers are increasingly skilled in restoring landscape processes. The accrued knowledge will be an asset to future work.

Residents await the next big flood with a new attitude, less afraid and more curious to see how well the redesign will perform. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is revising flood risk zones to reflect improvements, which will lower insurance rates for many.

Years of field surveys will be needed to assess restoration project outcomes for the river’s other residents: the birds, fishes and mammals. Judging by appearances, habitat is already much more appealing to wildlife.

Pond turtles, ducks, geese, and egrets are common within a few steps of First and Main streets in downtown Napa. Beavers have recolonized surprisingly fast, felling newly planted cottonwoods and building dams at the Rutherford Reach and even on Napa Creek just off Main Street.

The definitive test will be what happens with native salmon and steelhead, as hopes for their return have guided much of the habitat restoration.

Amber Manfree, a native of Napa County, is a geographer and postdoctoral researcher with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. She co­-edited the 2014 book, Suisun Marsh: Ecological History and Possible Futures.”

Further reading

Fimrite P. 2011. “Napa River restoration project serves as model.” San Francisco Chronicle. Dec. 10, 2011

Napa River/Napa Creek Flood Protection Project, Napa County

Photo Gallery: Napa River Flood Protection Project: Hall Building to First Street. MGE Engineering Inc of Sacramento

Napa River Flood Protection Project: Hatt Building to First Street, Napa, CA, MGE Engineering Inc. of Sacramento

Rutherford Dust Society



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Ten realities for managing the Delta

Levee break on Upper Jones Track, June 3, 2004. State Department of Water Resources.

Levee break on Upper Jones Track, June 3, 2004. Photo: California Department of Water Resources.

This article was originally published Feb. 26, 2013

By Peter Moyle

I have been working on Delta fishes for nearly 40 years. Increasingly, I have curmudgeonly thoughts about what is needed to make the ecosystem work better. Here I present these thoughts as “Ten Realities” – statements of the obvious that are often overlooked in public debates about the system.

Reality No. 1:  The historical Delta ecosystem cannot be restored. The Delta of today bears almost no resemblance to the Delta of 100 years ago. Late 19th century residents would have a hard time recognizing the place.

Gone are the tule-filled flood basins and marshes. Hardly a trace of riparian forest remains. Only 3 percent of the historical wetland acreage exists today. About the only familiar features would be the main sloughs and river channels, and even they have high levees on both sides (Whipple et al. 2012).

What this means is that Delta ecosystem cannot be restored to look or function as it did at some idyllic point in the past. Too much has changed for that to happen. How do you bring back tule or cattail marsh to an island that has sunk 30 feet from decades of farming its peaty soil? You can’t. How do you reverse the dominance of alien plants and animals in the Delta? You can’t (Lund et al. 2007, 2011).

Reality No. 2:  The Delta is not one place. Ecologically, the Delta is at least three places: the North Delta, the Central Delta and the South Delta.

Each place is distinctly different in the extent, distribution and characteristics of historical habitat types – tidal wetlands, waterways, lakes and ponds, and riparian forest – as detailed in a recent investigation of the Delta’s ecological history (Whipple et al. 2012). Although the habitats have been dramatically altered, differences in habitat types still hold today.

The differences are important in deciding where habitat improvements will have the best chance of success. The North Delta, for example, is where farming is likely to be sustained indefinitely – and where some of the biggest opportunities for habitat restoration exist. (Moyle et al. 2012). The Central Delta, in contrast, is most likely to change to open water as the result of floods, rising sea level and earthquakes (Lund et al. 2010).

Reality No. 3:  All species are not equal. Traditionally, habitat restoration efforts have aimed to recover populations of all native species – rare or not – by creating reserves or parks with restrictions on development. The approach is noble, but it rarely works in aquatic ecosystems. That’s because human activities have already transformed most systems beyond the point they can be meaningfully restored (Reality No. 1).

We should have ecosystems that contain as many California endemic species as possible. But preservation is a demanding enterprise. It requires intensive management of human-dominated ecosystems that contain mixtures of native and non-native species. We humans decide by our actions which of these species are desirable and worth preserving, often without making a conscious choice.

For example, if we want a Delta sport fishery, we should emphasize striped bass rather than largemouth bass. They’re both alien predators, but striped bass need an estuary.  If you’re managing for striped bass, you’re more likely to have an estuary that also happens to be good habitat for most native fishes. Keep in mind, though, that the Delta is not homogenous (Reality No. 2). Largemouth bass might be best suited for deeply subsided regions, which may never accommodate natives well.

Reality No. 4:  We know a lot about the Delta. “We need better science,” or, “We don’t know enough,” are common rationales for staying the course on Delta management. In reality, the Delta is part of the world’s most studied aquatic ecosystem, the San Francisco Estuary.

Environmental scientists have been steadily taking pulse of the estuary for more than 50 years, be it water quality, fish populations or volume of inflows. The Biennial Bay-Delta Science Conference consistently draws hundreds of researchers. There is even a scientific journal devoted exclusively to the estuary.

I agree that there is never enough information to make decisions with absolute certainty. But we have a lot of information today to guide restoration efforts (Healey et al. 2008; Lund et al. 2010). We have to be willing to take the risk that some decisions made today will be wrong, or at least not exactly right, in retrospect.

Steamboat on the San Joaquin River, circa 1860, with field of tules on fire. Mount Diablo in background. James M. Hutchings, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California

Steamboat on the San Joaquin River, circa 1860, with field of tules on fire and Mount Diablo in background.  From  Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California by James M. Hutchings.

Reality No. 5:  The Delta will change dramatically, no matter what. When interest groups say they want to protect the Delta, they essentially mean they want to protect the status quo. They think of the orchards, the row crops and the levees as constants, as with the largemouth bass fishery and the winter cornfields full of sandhill cranes and swans.

But the Delta has always been changing, especially in the past 150 years (Reality No. 1). Dramatic, rapid  change is in its future (Lund et al. 2007; Lund 2011). An earthquake, giant storms and/or sea level rise will transform much of the estuary into open water.

This is not hyperbole. Levees give way even in the absence of extreme events. It was a calm and sunny day in June 2004 when a 350-foot section of levee on the Jones Tract west of Stockton collapsed, flooding farmland and sending officials scrambling to restore the levee and pump out the island.

Reality No. 6:  Island flooding is a mixed bag for native fish. Flooded islands at intertidal elevations can create more habitats for some native fish, as the flooding of Liberty Island demonstrates.

Levee breaks and flooding of deeply subsided islands in the south and central Delta will create lakes that favor non-native fish and invertebrates. But with the right flows, salinity and temperature, flooded islands also could support desirable plankton-feeding fishes such as young striped bass and delta smelt (Moyle 2008).

Reality No. 7:  Climate change will alter the Delta ecosystem. Regional climate change is likely already affecting the magnitude, timing, duration and temperatures of flows to the Delta.

The projected increase in frequency and magnitude of winter floods will increase pressures on levees and the likelihood of widespread, multi-island floods, particularly in the south and central Delta. Also, many levees will not be able to sustain climate-induced sea level rise, which is projected to be 1 to 1.5 meters by the end of this century.

Longer periods of drought, another predicted effect of climate change, would result in more fresh water being captured for humans and less flowing through the Delta for fish. In dry years, temperatures may reach levels lethal for native fishes such as delta smelt (Brown et al. 2011). Thus, many native fishes in the Delta may not survive under climate change (Moyle et al. 2012). But if we plan for climate change – for example, use cold water storage of upstream reservoirs combined with the cool, deep pools in the subsided delta – we we may be able to create conditions for most of these fishes to make it.

Reality No. 8:  Alien species cause major ecosystem changes. The Delta is part of the most “invaded” estuary in the world.  The pace of invasions appears to have increased in recent decades. At least 185 alien species of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals now inhabit the Delta. They have profoundly changed Bay-Delta food webs and habitats, mostly (but not always) to the detriment of native species.

Two of the bigger ecological troublemakers are the Brazilian waterweed (Egeria densa) and the overbite clam (Potamocorbula amurensis). With densities as high as 10,000 per square meter, the dime-size clams suck up enormous amounts of plankton, robbing Delta smelt and other pelagic fish of food. Meanwhile, dense patches of the prolific Brazilian waterweed are slowing tidal flows and creating lake-like conditions favorable to bass, sunfish and other non-native fish.

Reality No. 9:  A Delta that is variable in time and space will be best for native fish. We’ve transformed the Delta from a highly variably ecosystem favored by native fish to a lake-like environment with more uniform habitats.

If we want native fish in the future, we need to reintroduce variability on a large scale. Variability means a wider range both in the conditions of the water – temperature, salinity and turbidity – and in habitat types  – tidal wetlands, waterways, lakes and ponds, and riparian forest (Moyle et al 2010).

Reality No. 10: Accomplishing “coequal’ goals in the Delta means greatly improving conditions for fish. The 2009 Delta Reform Act mandates that the state achieve the “coequal goals” of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.

The reality is that the water priorities for people and fish and have never been anything approaching equal. The environment has always gotten the short end of the stick.

So achieving coequal goals should mean greatly improving conditions for fish, first, and then figuring out how to share the water better. It means we should give far greater consideration to native and other desirable species in the way we release water from dams and move it through the Delta.

In my gloomier days, I think “co-equal goals” really means just slowing the native fishes’ slide towards extinction, so we can say, “Well, we tried.” But fundamentally I am an optimist. I like to think of a rosier future for the Delta ecosystem under the rubric of “reconciliation ecology” (Rosenzweig 2002).

This means we accept the fact that all species live in human-dominated ecosystems, and that we must make those systems as welcoming as possible for the desirable (mostly native) species. This means greater integration of natural processes into the management of all areas, whether cities, farms, wildlands or waterways.

This will not be easy. But I love to think of the Delta as the first place in California where reconciliation ecology is applied on a large scale.

Peter Moyle is a UC Davis professor of fish biology and an associate director of the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further reading

Brown LR, Bennett W, Wagner RW, Morgan-King T, Knowles N, Feyrer F, Schoellhamer DH, Stacey MT, Dettinger M. 2011. Implications for Future Survival of Delta Smelt from Four Climate Change Scenarios for the SacramentoSan Joaquin Delta, California. Estuaries and Coasts  DOI 10.1007/s12237-013-9585-4

Healey, et al. 2008. The State of Bay-Delta Science 2008, CALFED Science Program, Sacramento, CA.

Lund (2011), “Sea level rise and Delta subsidence—the demise of subsided Delta islands,”, March 9, 2011.

Lund J, Hanak E, Fleenor W, Howitt R, Mount JF, Moyle PB.  2007. Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA.

Lund J, Hanak E, Fleenor W, Bennett W, Howitt R, Mount J, Moyle PB, Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, February 2010.

Lund J, Moyle PB, Hanak E, Mount JF, “No going back for the Delta, but which way forward?”,, June 22, 2011.

Moyle PB. 2002. Inland Fishes of California, Revised and Expanded. Berkeley: University of California Press. 502 pp.

Moyle, PB. 2008. The future of fish in response to large-scale change in the San Francisco Estuary, California. Pages 357-374 In K.D. McLaughlin, editor. Mitigating Impacts of Natural Hazards on Fishery Ecosystems. American Fishery Society, Symposium 64, Bethesda, Maryland.

Moyle PB, Bennett W, Durand J, Fleenor W, Gray B, Hanak E, Lund J, Mount JF. 2012. Where the wild things aren’t: making the Delta a better place for native species. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California. 53 pages.

Moyle PB, Lund J, Bennett W, et al. 2010. Habitat Variability and Complexity in the Upper San Francisco Estuary. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 8(3):1-24.

Moyle PB, Quiñones RM, Kiernan JD. 2012b. Effects of climate change on the inland fishes of California, with emphasis on the San Francisco Estuary region. California Energy Commission, Public Interest Research Program White Paper CEC-500-2011-037. 211 pp.

Rosenzweig, ML. 2003. Win-win ecology: how the earth’s species can survive in the midst of human enterprise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whipple AA, Grossinger RM, Rankin D, Stanford B, Askevold RA . 2012. Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Historical Ecology Investigation: Exploring Pattern and Process. Prepared for the California Department of Fish and Game and Ecosystem Restoration Program. A Report of SFEI-ASC’s Historical Ecology Program, SFEI-ASC Publication #672, San Francisco Estuary Institute-Aquatic Science Center, Richmond, CA.


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Is California’s drought a ‘new normal’ ?

From left,  Mark Cowin (DWR Director) and Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. address the media during a snow survey at Phillips Station on April 1, 2015.  Measurements in Phillips began in 1942, and today is the first time there is zero snow for an April 1 measurement.  Below-normal precipitation, combined with unusually warm weather, has produced meager snowfall during the traditional wet season. *FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY*

Gov. Jerry Brown addresses the media at a snowless snow survey site just south of Lake Tahoe on April 1, in the fourth year of drought. On his left is Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). Photo by Florence Low/DWR

By Stephen Maples

Many are wondering whether the current drought is the harbinger of a drier California with more frequent and longer multi-year dry spells.

Some have already jumped to this conclusion.

This is the new normal,” Gov. Jerry Brown declared during an April 1 press conference announcing mandatory urban water restrictions statewide, the first in state history. The news media amplified the pithy quote and several other elected officials have repeated the claim as their own.

Brown made the announcement at a snowless Sierra snow survey site. The water content of the mountain snowpack, so crucial to California’s water supply, was only 5 percent of the April 1 average, by far the lowest reading on record for that date.

The governor’s phrase surfaced the following week during a conference on water scarcity organized by UC Davis graduate students. The students asked more than a dozen the speakers, “Is increased water scarcity in the West the ‘new normal’?”

The responses were diverse, suggesting a lack of consensus among water experts. Several speakers answered unequivocally in the affirmative.

“At the end of the day the answer is yes,” said Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “But I think what you’re (also) going to have is much more erratic precipitations. You’re going to have more rainfall, less snowfall. That change alone will make a huge difference and can contribute to the scarcity picture.”


Panelists at Water Scarcity in the West conference at UC Davis, April 2015.  Photo by Carole Hom/UC Davis

Other speakers – experts in atmospheric science, climatology, history, hydrology and water policy – hesitated to characterize increased water scarcity as a “new normal” without adding qualifiers to their response.

“Climate-wise, the norm depends on what time period you’re looking at…10-year, 30-year, 100-year or a 500-year [or a] 5000-year [period]?” said David Easterling, chief of the Global Applications Division at the National Climatic Data Center.

Paleoclimate records show California has endured “mega-droughts”  that lasted more than 100 years. Increased water scarcity, Easterling said, is “probably not” a new norm given the “huge swings” in the Earth’s climate over the eons.

Several studies report conflicting findings on the link between the California drought and climate change. But there is scientific consensus that increasing temperatures under climate change can worsen effects of drought, increasing evaporation and transpiration of surface water and soil moisture.

A warmer atmosphere will take more water from the land, said Reed Maxwell, a hydrology professor at the Colorado School of Mines. “That means the amount of water going into the terrestrial system, going into streams, going into groundwater, going to lakes… it has to be less.”

Other speakers pointed out that water scarcity is driven by both supply and demand.

While it remains to be seen how climate change will affect California’s water supply, water demand is certain to increase, said Richard Howitt, a UC Davis professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics.

“With or without climate change, environmental requirements, our agricultural crop impacts and our population growth all contribute to increasing scarcity,” Howitt said. “We can cope with it, but we have to be smart about it.”

If anything clear emerged from the “new normal” discussion, it’s that the catch-phrase raises more questions than it answers. The interplay between climate change and water supply at local and regional scales is still poorly understood.

Proclaiming the current drought as the “new normal” under climate change is premature, if not deceptive. But it may help sell Californians on water conservation and prepare them for future droughts, which is likely what the governor and other politicians have in mind.

Stephen Maples, a graduate student in hydrology, helped organize the Water Scarcity in the West conference as a 2014-2015 fellow with the Climate Change, Water and Society IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship) program at UC Davis. IGERT Fellows Alejo Kraus-Polk and Lauren Foster contributed to this blog.

Further reading

Climate Change, Society and Water IGERT, UC Davis 

Cook E. et al. 2007. North American Drought: Reconstructions, Causes and Consequences. Earth-Sci. Rev. 81 (1) 93–134

Lund J. 2014. “Could California weather a mega-drought?” California WaterBlog. June 29, 2014.

Swain D. et al. 2014. The Extraordinary California Drought of 2013/2014: Character, Context and the Role of Climate Change [in “Explaining Extremes of 2013 from a Climate Perspective”]. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95 (9), S3–S7

Wang H. and Schubert S. 2014. Causes of the Extreme Dry Conditions Over California During Early 2013 [in “Explaining Extremes of 2013 from a Climate Perspective”]. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95 (9), S7–S11. PowerPoint version

Funk C. et al. 2014. Examining the Contribution of the Observed Global Warming Trend to the California Droughts of 2012/13 and 2013/14 [in “Explaining Extremes of 2013 from a Climate Perspective”]. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95 (9), S11–S15

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California Drought: Virtual Water vs. Real Water

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published Feb. 27, 2014

By Jay Lund

There has been considerable kvetching during this drought about California exporting agricultural products overseas, with some saying that this implies we are virtually exporting water that we should be using in California.

Those concerned should take comfort with California’s major imports of virtual water. Much of the food consumed here comes from other states and countries, and their production, of course, requires water.

Much of the corn fed to California’s dairy cattle is grown on Midwest farms with Midwest water. And much of our clothing is made of imported cotton, a water-intensive crop, or made from petrochemicals, which used oil and water from elsewhere.

Tremendous amounts of water also is needed to grow Oregon’s forests that supply a lot of the lumber framing our new homes, to produce the steel in cars shipped to California and to run factories in China and Malaysia that make our computers and smart phones. Think of the virtual water all these other countries and states are exporting to us.

We live in a world of virtual flows of goods and services that produce the real goods and services we willingly buy in favor of less-efficiently made local goods and services. The economics of production are important – virtual water is not.

The virtual water notion can be applied to other production inputs. Consider California’s many virtual immigrants — people who did not need to move here because we import the products they make in other states and countries. Consider virtual energy use; some of the energy used to make your iPhone came from Iran via China, virtually avoiding trade sanctions with Iran.

“Virtual water” and related “water footprint” calculations are cute and popular. We can have lots of fun with the idea of a virtual this and that. (Virtual manure can be imagined coming and going from California and flowing globally.) These notions have some value for raising public consciousness on the roles and importance of water. But the wide range of water values and opportunity costs across the globe and over time commonly makes these calculations misleading.

Talk of virtual water distracts from serious discussion of economic, environmental and hydrological objectives and processes important for real water and environmental systems to function. Virtual water discussions are all the more counterproductive coming in the midst of a very real and serious drought.

Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further reading

Frontier Economics (2008), The concept of ‘virtual water’ — a critical review, Report for the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, Australia.

Iyer, R.R. (2012), Virtual water: Some reservations, GWF Discussion Paper 1218, Global Water Forum, Canberra, Australia.

Merrett, Stephen W. (2003), ‘Virtual water’ and Occam’s razor, Occasional Paper No 62, SOAS Water Issues Study Group, School of Oriental and African Studies/King’s College London, University of London.

Neubert, Susanne (2008), “Strategic Virtual Water Trade – A Critical Analysis of the Debate,” in W. Scheumann et al. (eds.), Water Politics and Development Cooperation, 123 doi: 10.1007/978-3-540-6707-76, Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg 2008

Wichelns, Dennis (2010), Virtual Water and Water Footprints Offer Limited Insight Regarding Important Policy Questions, Water Resources Development, Vol. 26, No. 4, 639–651, December.

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Creeks that cool down as summer heats up

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Big Springs Creek near Mount Shasta (background) hosts an abundance of aquatic plants that lower water temperatures when salmon and trout need it most, during the dogs days of summer. Photo by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis

By Ann Willis and Andrew Nichols

Summer has just begun and conditions on many of California’s drought-stricken rivers and streams are already looking grim for cold-water fish.

Endangered winter-run salmon may not survive a repeat of last summer’s nearly total loss of eggs and fry from an over-heated Sacramento River. Low and warm flows in the Russian River watershed are threatening coho salmon and steelhead, prompting emergency water restrictions. And, last week, the state began evacuating rainbow and brown trout at the American River and Nimbus hatcheries to prevent die-offs over the summer.

However, not every California stream will turn perilous. In fact, some spring-fed streams are likely to become more hospitable during the dog days of summer.

Our on-going investigation of Big Springs Creek near Mount Shasta found that from May to August – when California streams generally warm up – maximum water temperatures cool by almost 3 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooling is all the more remarkable considering the creek is practically devoid of shade trees.

How could this be? The answer lies just below (and above) the water surface: aquatic plants.

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A young rainbow trout in Big Springs Creek. Photo by Carson Jeffres/UC Davis

Generally, the best way to maintain cold-water fish habitat is to keep cold water cool – because once water warms, it’s difficult to reverse the trend. In Big Springs Creek, plants known as macrophytes help to provide that benefit in the absence of shade trees. Just as streamside trees form a shady canopy over a creek, mature stands of these rooted vascular plants create a sun-blocking umbrella within the creek channel.

The plants typically grow in spring-fed streams with stable flows, open canopy and low gradient. Big Springs Creek nourishes an abundance of macrophytes because its waters are enriched with nitrogen and phosphorous from volcanic and sedimentary rock.  

The 2.2 mile Big Springs Creek (center) is fed from the snow-capped Mount Shasta. The snowmelt runs underground through porous volcanic rock before eventually bubbling up in the creek. The Shasta Basin (outlined) is part of the much larger Klamath Basin (inset). Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Snowmelt from Mount Shasta runs underground through porous volcanic and sedimentary rock before eventually bubbling up in Big Springs Creek (center). Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

In 2011, scientists with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and Watercourse Engineering Inc. had an opportunity to quantify just how much influence these plants have in regulating water velocities, depths and temperatures in Big Springs. The predominant shady macrophyte species in the creek are water peppercutleaf water parsnip and seep monkey flower.

Not surprisingly, our study found that plant growth improved the stream’s physical habitat by slowing the flow, which deepened the creek and better protected fish from predators. However, we did not expect the plants to have such a pronounced effect on seasonal water temperatures.

The plants start their seasonal growth in the spring when the creek is shallow and widely exposed to the elements. But as the plants grow and emerge above the creek surface, their influence on water depth and temperature increases. 

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Aquatic plants grow spring through summer. Early in the growth season, they have little influence on water temperature. But as they grow and emerge above the water surface, the plants deepen the creek and provide extensive shade, causing water temperatures to cool. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

In May 2011, maximum water temperatures in the creek reached 68.5 degrees. By August, beds of these plants covered almost half the creek, water depths nearly doubled and 84 percent to 93 percent of solar radiation was blocked. Maximum water temperatures fell 3 degrees, to 65.5 degrees.

That’s right, summer temperatures in the creek cooled during the hottest time of the season. While maximum water temperatures have varied from year to year, the summer cooling pattern has held throughout the current drought.

The cooling effect of aquatic plant growth has important implications for restoration and management of certain spring-fed rivers and streams where these plants grow. For example, it’s easier to manipulate water temperatures by allowing these plants to flourish than by reshaping the stream channel or changing the flows from groundwater springs. Also, the plants’ rapid growth provides considerable short-term cooling compared with the time and cost of establishing canopies of shade trees.

The findings suggest that spring-fed streams have an important role to play as refuges for cold-water fish in a warming climate. Giving high priority to the stewardship of these streams will help sustain these important ecosystems in an uncertain future.

Ann Willis and Andrew Nichols are research scientists with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further reading

Willis et al. 2012. Executive analysis of restoration actions in Big Springs Creek, March 2008-September 2011. Report prepared for National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Willis et al. 2015. A salmon success story during the California drought. California Waterblog

Lusardi and Willis. 2014. Aquatic plants: unsung but prime salmon habitat. California Waterblog

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How to manage drought: Ask an economist

faceshots2.pngThe economics of water scarcity is crucial to sustainable water management, particularly during droughts. California has long benefited from the insights of economists, though their ranks in state water agencies are thinning. Luckily, California has a wealth of young, talented economists already active in public water policy and who will be around for future droughts. California WaterBlog asked five of them what California should be doing to prepare for a fifth year of drought and beyond.

Get inside consumers’ heads

By Kurt Schwabe

Does a lawn use more water than a pool? How much water will be saved by replacing turf with drought-resistant landscaping? Will it be cost-effective? What will be the effect on residential water use if a water agency incentivizes customers to use water more efficiently (adopts a budget-based tiered water rate)?

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Kurt Schwabe, UC Riverside

It depends. That is, these questions are difficult to unpack since they are intricately tied to human behavior.

For example, the degree to which drought tolerant landscaping saves a household water relative to turfgrass will depend on, among other factors, how they irrigated their lawn before and after replacement. Alternatively, the relative water use of a pool versus turfgrass also will depend on, among other factors, their irrigation habits prior to installing the pool. Unfortunately, restricting water use to fewer days a week – as some research shows – doesn’t necessarily save water, nor does refilling one’s pool every other day rather than every day (as one customer tried to convince me of during a recent trip to the barbershop). 

Historically, California’s management of severe drought has centered on engineering solutions. In the current drought, however, understanding human behavior and the demand side of water management is beginning to share the center stage.

Forward-looking water agencies are overcoming the stigma that investments in understanding human behavior are somehow less worthy than augmenting water supply in addressing drought. Indeed, these agencies are systematically evaluating numerous ways to improve demand-side management through analyses that identify:

  • Factors determining participation in conservation programs
  • Factors influencing residential water demand
  • Effectiveness of price and non-price conservation programs
  • Revenue and cost implications of alternative conservation options
  • Possible synergistic effects across conservation programs

Such efforts can lead to more informed, targeted and cost-effective conservation programs.

Kurt Schwabe is associate professor of environmental economics and policy at UC Riverside.

Increase role of water markets

By Katrina Jessoe

Economists have long recognized well-functioning water markets as a valuable tool for reducing the economic costs of drought.

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Katrina Jessoe, UC Davis

They involve voluntary transfers of water between parties, usually from higher priority to lower priority water-rights holders, at a negotiated price. They offer an opportunity to transfer water from lower value to higher value uses, regardless of whether those uses are for agricultural, urban or environmental purposes.

Water transfers in California have been occurring since the 1976-77 drought, but their role in managing droughts should be increased. Reducing transaction costs and expanding groundwater markets could do this.

The former does not imply that the environmental impacts of transfers should be ignored. Environmental costs are real and should be taken into account before approving a transfer. However, the current transfer process is cumbersome and drawn-out. A more streamlined approach could reduce transaction costs and encourage market activity.

The recently enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, requiring local agencies to manage underground pumping and recharge sustainably, may encourage groundwater banking and borrowing.

Groundwater markets would allow for trading to occur over time with increased pumping during times of scarcity and the replenishment of aquifers during wet years. These transfers would introduce further flexibility in managing water resources.

 Water markets will not prevent droughts but they offer a feasible and flexible pathway to lessen their economic costs.

Katrina Jessoe is assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.

Tiered water pricing works – and it’s legal

By Kenneth Baerenklau

What happens when there is a disruption in the supply of oil or some other commodity? The price tends to go up and demand tends to go down. The demand for water is no different.

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Kenneth Baerenklau, UC Riverside

There is an abundance of empirical evidence demonstrating that consumers reduce their demand for water in response to higher prices. In the residential sector, demand tends to fall by about 4 to 6 percent for every 10 percent increase in price (albeit with significant variability across circumstances).

But the difference between water and other commodities is that the prices charged by water agencies typically aren’t very responsive to disruptions in supply. That is, when water becomes increasingly scarce, prices don’t necessarily rise to reflect this scarcity, and thus demand doesn’t fall.

There are some good reasons for maintaining price stability related to the essential nature of water and the lack of good substitutes. But pricing nonetheless remains a very effective tool for managing water demand.

A recent court decision in an Orange County case may have left the impression that a particularly popular and effective “tiered” approach to water pricing is unconstitutional in California.

On the contrary, the court stated clearly that tiered pricing is not unconstitutional and furthermore makes good sense. Debate remains over the types of costs that can be passed on to customers as higher water prices. Californians nevertheless should expect their water suppliers to rely more heavily on pricing to achieve conservation goals as this drought continues, and even more so when the next one comes around.

Kenneth Baerenklau is associate professor of environmental economics and policy at the UC Riverside School of Public Policy

Keep closer tabs on crop water use

By Josué Medellín-Azuara

Agriculture in California, as in many other parts the world, has the lion’s share of water use. The industry uses 80 percent of the water consumed in the state in a normal year. Yet the state’s method of tracking all that water use has not kept pace with the needs of modern water management.


Josué Medellín-Azuara, UC Davis

Estimating farm water use requires data on cropping patterns, land use, water deliveries and irrigation methods. At best, this information is available annually. It takes county agricultural commissioners and state agencies that long to collect it.

Effective water management calls for timelier water-use accounting, especially during droughts.

Modern measuring methods using multispectral satellite imagery make it possible to estimate farmers’ “consumptive” water use — the amounts of irrigation water crops transpire and evaporate from the nearby soil.

Consumptive water-use estimation using satellites in combination with ground-level weather data and land-use surveys can greatly improve the timing, accuracy and effectiveness of this information.

Other western states use this remotely sensed measurement technology to quantify consumptive use and manage their water rights system. The technology is relatively inexpensive (just cents per acre in Idaho).

A consortium of federal and state agencies can make this endeavor possible. A concerted effort to organize, document and distribute this wealth of information is needed.

Josué Medellín-Azuara is a senior researcher specialized in hydro-economic modeling at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Monitor and manage our groundwater

By Duncan MacEwan

The ability of California growers to offset shortfalls in surface waters supplies with increased groundwater pumping is critical to avoid costly crop losses during droughts. Growers pumped an additional 5.1 million acre-feet (maf) of groundwater in 2014, offsetting 75 percent of the surface water shortage that drought year.

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Duncan MacEwan, ERA Economics

But mining groundwater this way carries costs that undercut agricultural productivity in the long run.

Pumping groundwater water faster than nature replenishes it results in depletion of the groundwater in a basin. In the last decade, California’s Central Valley overdrafted its groundwater reserves by more than 20 maf. Average annual overdraft ranged from 0.4 maf in average water year conditions to more than 1.4 maf in dry years [1].

The standard cost of groundwater overdraft is the additional energy required to pump from a lower water level. But there are two additional, and perhaps more important, economic costs: the buffer value and stranded capital costs.

The buffer value is the value of having groundwater stored and available for use during drought years. It is reflected in the ability to irrigate higher-value crops in dry years by planting fewer acres of lower-value crops in wet years. The stranded capital cost is the present value of the remaining useful life of assets such as wells and orchards that were lost during drought as a result of insufficient groundwater.

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 paves the way for conjunctive rather than extractive groundwater management. That is, groundwater pumping may exceed the natural rate of recharge during dry years, but must be replenished in wet years to avoid additional economic costs.

The current drought has highlighted the value of our groundwater reserves to agriculture. We have learned that we must monitor and manage our groundwater to preserve the marginal pumping cost, buffer value and stranded capital costs. The new groundwater laws move us in that direction.

[1] Author’s calculations using DWR’s C2VSim model data.

Duncan MacEwan is managing partner at ERA Economics in Davis, Calif., specializing in water resources and agriculture.

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Making the most of little water — with spreadsheets

Photo by Jenny Ta/UC Davis

A dam on Mill Creek diverts water for irrigation of nut orchards and pasture in the Tehama County community of Los Molinos. The stream routinely goes almost completely dry during irrigation season, preventing threatened spring-run Chinook salmon from reaching one of its few remaining spawning areas.  Photo by Jenny Ta/UC Davis

By Jenny Ta and Joshua Viers

It seems inevitable that increasing numbers of California farmers will see their claims to surface water suspended this growing season as the drought persists into a fourth year.

The State Water Resources Control Board said as much Friday (June 12) when it extended drought-related prohibitions on river diversions to irrigators with rights dating to 1903 in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its watersheds. The order marked the first time California has limited water use for senior water rights holders since the 1976-77 drought. 

The prospect of such draconian cutbacks convinced about 200 Delta farmers with priority dates earlier than 1903 they would be better off giving up water before they began planting. In May, they negotiated an agreement with the water board to voluntarily surrender 25 percent of water supplies (from 2013 levels) this June – September growing season.

Across California, other farmers and ranchers with senior water rights will likely seek similar deals to pre-empt potentially steeper mandatory cuts. Common ways to reduce diversions from streams include voluntary curtailments, water exchanges, conjunctive use and water purchases.

The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences recently developed a tool to quantitatively evaluate these water management options. Working with the Nature Conservancy, we designed the model to assess strategies for restoring populations of native fish on Mill Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River.

Mill Creek Watershed

Source: Google Maps

Mill Creek hosts one of the highest elevation salmon-spawning habitats in California and is one of the few streams that still support threatened spring-run Chinook salmon. It winds southwest from Mount Lassen through a narrow canyon until it reaches the Sacramento Valley. Before joining the Sacramento River, the creek flows through the small Tehama County community of Los Molinos, where landowners with senior water rights divert flows to irrigate nut orchards and cattle pasture.

Tehama County Superior Court adjudicated Mill Creek water rights in 1920, allocating the stream’s entire discharge during low summer flows. As a result, the stream routinely goes almost completely dry during irrigation season (June through mid-October). At the request of state and federal fisheries regulators, local irrigators voluntarily agreed to provide flows for the spring and fall salmon migration this drought year and last. This year’s curtailment orders have not affected these senior water rights holders — so far.


Lower reach of Mill Creek where it flows through Los Molinos and is diverted for irrigation. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Stream flow is critical to sustaining riverine plants and animals, many of which have adapted to historic flow patterns. These species include the foothill yellow-legged frog, whose reproduction is timed with the annual spring snowmelt, and Pacific salmon that migrate up the Sacramento and spawn in the creek.

Our water management tool is an easy-to-use spreadsheet model that calculates and identifies environmental-flow shortages based on seasonal diversion demands and water management scenarios, such as water exchanges, water-rights purchases and substituting groundwater for creek water. 


Water shortages to fall and spring fish passage flows for a critically dry year, 2008 (above) and for a wet year, 2006 (below). Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

For example, we analyzed strategies for providing fish-passage flows during the spring and fall migration of Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, species of particular interest to wildlife managers.

The model identified late October as a period of water scarcity for irrigation and fish passage in both dry and wet years. Fish-flow shortages ranged from 1,600 to 2,450 acre-feet of water annually from wet to dry years, as illustrated above.

Our analysis showed that if irrigators left their water in the stream a few weeks during fall migration (late October through early November) — in return for the conservancy availing its share of creek water to irrigators from July to early October, shortages to fish-passage flows would be reduced by about 60 percent. (See table below, under “Agreement”.) If, in addition to the water exchange, irrigators pumped more water from wells instead of the creek, the passage flows could potentially be fully restored.

Environmental flow shortages and percent reduction in shortages for different water management options. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Environmental flow shortages and percent reduction in shortages for different water management options. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

We did not address all factors that need to be considered in reducing water diversions, such as groundwater-river water interactions, water quality and economic trade-offs. But the tool is a useful first step in deciding how to address environmental water shortages in diverted creeks and rivers. Other salmon-bearing streams such as Deer Creek in Tehama County and the Eel River in northwestern California face similar water management challenges.

Fish-water needs aside, California landowners with senior water rights are on notice this drought year that curtailments are likely if not imminent. Those looking to pre-emptively cut a deal with the state water board, as many Delta farmers did, may benefit from quantitatively evaluating their water management options.

Jenny Ta is a graduate student of hydrologic sciences at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Joshua Viers is an associate professor at UC Merced and co-director of the UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative.

Further reading

Grantham T and Viers J. “California water rights: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” California WaterBlog. Aug. 20, 2014

Ta, Jenny. “Decision support tool for water management and environmental flows: Mill Creek case study.” Masters thesis. UC Davis. May 25, 2015

Willis A, et al. “A salmon success story during the California drought.” California WaterBlog. Jan. 20, 2015

Yarnell S. “How dam operators can breathe more life into rivers.” California WaterBlog. Feb. 1, 2015

Yarnell S. “Life springs in Sierra Rivers as springtime flows recede.” California WaterBlog, May 4, 2013

Yarnell S. Sierra frogs breed insights on river management. California WaterBlog. Oct. 3, 2012

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Drought killing farm jobs — even as they grow

Despite the drought, jobs and revenue in 2014 continued to grow in some parts of California agriculture. Workers shown here in 2013 are harvesting cauliflower on the Central Coast, which was less affected by the drought. Photo by John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources.

Despite the drought, jobs and revenue in 2014 continued to grow in some parts of California agriculture. Workers shown here in 2013 are harvesting cauliflower on the Central Coast, which was less affected by the drought. Photo by John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources.

By Josué Medellín-Azuara, Richard Howitt, Duncan MacEwan, Daniel Sumner and Jay Lund

With all the news about the drought drying up farm jobs, it seems paradoxical that California agriculture actually came out a bit ahead on employment growth last year.

The industry gained a monthly average of more than 4,000 jobs, up 1 percent from 2013, according to the latest state Employment Development Department statistics.

How could this be?

The drought has caused growers to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres and forced ranchers to sell off livestock. But some parts of agriculture have continued to grow in revenue and jobs (albeit at a slower rate because of the drought).

Workers harvesting

Workers harvesting swiss chard on Central Coast, winter 2013. Photo by John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources

The growth in labor is largely from farmers shifting to more profitable, permanent crops that usually take more hands to produce, a trend that has been going on for many years.

Global markets are favoring tree fruits and nuts, vine crops and vegetables with high prices, such as almonds pistachios and grapes. This is feeding conversion of farmland from annual crops and pasture to orchards and vineyards that are too valuable to fallow.

Despite the drought, growth in these more labor-intensive crops increased overall agricultural employment last year to a monthly average of 412,300 jobs, the state labor data show.

Last summer we estimated the 2014 drought would result in the loss of 17,100 jobs across California’s economy, with 7,500 of these jobs directly related to agriculture. The fallout has been harsh on many farm communities already suffering from high unemployment, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley. But it is not inconsistent with the longer-term increase in total farm employment.

Blossoms appear on the trees in the many orchards of the San Joaquin Valley.

A San Joaquin Valley almond orchard in bloom, winter 2013. California growers are shifting to more profitable permanent crops such as almonds, which usually are more labor-intensive than the lower-value annual crops such as alfalfa.

Consider the stock market and suppose you own stock only in Google. If Google goes down, but the market as a whole goes up, no one will question that you have lost money. The same idea applies to the 2014 California drought: Total statewide farm employment (stock market) increased because of strong specialty crop prices and other factors unrelated to the drought. The drought (Google) nevertheless led to significant fallowing and farm job losses in many parts of the state.

Aggregate employment statistics can be misleading, especially in agriculture, with its high proportion of undocumented, seasonal, part-time and contract jobs.

Drought impacts on farm employment are estimated by going directly to the cause, namely water shortages. These shortages are then expressed in lost jobs using economic models that link water to farm production to farm jobs. This gives an estimate of the incremental effect of drought on agricultural employment.

The drought-related job loss estimates from our models do not account for the compensating effects of regional shifting of jobs or water trades. But they do give a good indication of areas most vulnerable to drought.

Richard HowittJosué Medellín-Azuara and Jay Lund are with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences; Duncan MacEwan is with ERA Economics in Davis, Calif.; and Daniel Sumner is director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.

California's agricultural workforce grew slightly in 2014, largely because growers are shifting to more labor-intensive, permanent crops with higher prices, such as almonds and grapes. However, the drought sharply decreased employment in contract farm labor and other support jobs during the irrigation season. Source: California Employment Development Department

California’s agricultural workforce grew slightly in 2014, largely because growers are shifting to more labor-intensive, permanent crops with higher prices, such as almonds and grapes. However, the drought sharply decreased employment in contract farm labor and other support jobs during the irrigation season. Source: California Employment Development Department

The San Joaquin Valley saw the largest farm job losses in California during the 2013-2014 irrigation seasons, with modest gains in some areas. A similar trend occurred in the South Coast. The Sacramento Valley saw job increases in the hundreds – far less than would have been expected with no drought. The Central Coast, which is less affected by drought, had increases in all job categories. Source: California Employment Development Department

The San Joaquin Valley saw the largest farm job losses in California during the 2013-2014 irrigation seasons, with modest gains in some areas. A similar trend occurred in the South Coast. The Sacramento Valley saw job increases in the hundreds – far less than would have been expected with no drought. The Central Coast, which is less affected by drought, had increases in all job categories. Source: California Employment Development Department

Year to year growth in California’s agricultural employment during this five-year period peaked in 2013 at 15,000 jobs, then in 2014 plummeted to 117 jobs. Source: California Employment Development Department

Year to year growth in California’s agricultural employment during this five-year period peaked in 2013 at 15,000 jobs, then in 2014 plummeted to 117 jobs. Source: California Employment Development Department


Further reading

California Employment and Development Department. 2015. “Agricultural employment in California.” Last visited June 3, 2015

Howitt R, Medellín-Azuara J, MacEwan D, Lund J and Sumner DA. 2015. “Preliminary analysis: 2015 drought economic impact study.” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. 9p

Howitt R, Medellin-Azuara J, MacEwan D, Lund J and Sumner DA. 2014. “Economic analysis of the 2014 drought for California agriculture.” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. 20p

Lund J. “Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management.” California WaterBlog. May 26, 2014

Medellín-Azuara J, Lund J and Howitt R. 2015. “Jobs per drop irrigating California crops.”California Water Blog. April 28, 2015

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Harsher drought impacts forecast for California agriculture

Ground view showing drought conditions in agriculture field.

Drought conditions in crop field near Woodland, Calif. Source: California Department of Water Resources

By Richard Howitt, Duncan MacEwan, Josué Medellín-Azuara, Jay Lund and Daniel A. Sumner

The drought is expected to be worse for California’s agricultural economy this year because of reduced water availability, according to our preliminary estimates released today.

The study, summarized below, estimates farmers will have 2.7 million acre-feet less surface water than they would in a normal water year — about a 33 percent loss of water supply, on average. The impacts are concentrated mostly in the San Joaquin Valley and are not evenly distributed; individual farmers will face losses of zero to 100 percent.

Expanded groundwater pumping will offset more than 70 percent of this surface water deficit, according to our modeling of how farmers are likely to respond. This leaves a shortage of 2.5 million acre-feet — 9 to 10 percent of the amount normally applied to crops — compared with a net water shortage of 1.5 million acre-feet in 2014.

The estimates, prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, also show that farmers will fallow roughly 560,000 acres or 6 to 7 percent of California’s average annual irrigated cropland.

Estimated Drought Impacts to California Agriculture, 2015


Source:Howitt RE, Medellín-Azuara J, MacEwan D, Lund JR and Sumner DA. 2015. “Preliminary Analysis: 2015 Drought Economic Impact Study,” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Economically, the drought seems on track to reduce crop, dairy and livestock revenues by $1.2 billion this year. Pumping costs are expected to reach nearly $600 million. Overall, the drought is estimated to cause direct costs of $1.8 billion — about 4 percent of California’s $45 billion agricultural economy. When we account for the spillover effect of agriculture on the state’s other economic sectors, the total cost of this year’s drought on California’s economy is $2.7 billion and the loss of about 18,600 full- and part-time jobs.

California Agricultural Jobs and the Drought, 2013 -2014Pages from 2015Drought_PrelimAnalysis copy

Agricultural employment increased from 2013 to 2014, but substantial losses of irrigation-season jobs occurred in areas particularly hard-hit by the drought.
Source: Authors’ calculations using California Employment and Development Department data

The drought induced job losses even while total agricultural employment continued to grow. We estimate further job losses will occur in 2015.

As with last year, groundwater, global markets and water markets are greatly reducing the economic impacts of the drought on California’s agriculture and consumers worldwide. Still, considerable local suffering will remain in harder-hit areas.

We will update our estimates in the coming months as additional data become available.

Richard HowittJosué Medellín-Azuara and Jay Lund are with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences; Duncan MacEwan is with ERA Economics in Davis, Calif.; and Daniel Sumner is director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. 

Further reading

Howitt RE, Medellín-Azuara J, MacEwan D, Lund JR and Sumner DA. 2015. “Preliminary Analysis: 2015 Drought Economic Impact Study,” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. 9p

Howitt RE, Medellín-Azuara J, MacEwan D, Lund JR and Sumner DA. 2014. Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture.” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. 20p

Lund, JR, Medellín-Azuara J, Harter T. Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater groundwater management.” California WaterBlog.May26,2014

Lund, JR et al. “Taking agricultural conservation seriously.” California WaterBlog. March 15, 2011

Medellín-Azuara J and Lund JR. “Dollars and drops per California crop.” California WaterBlog. April 14, 2015

Sumner DA. “Food prices and the California drought.” California WaterBlog. April 22, 2015

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

Ten ways the feds can help ease drought in the West

Lake Oroville showing The Enterprise Bridge looking from the South Fork on September 5th, 2014.

South Fork of Lake Oroville, California’s second largest reservoir, on Sept. 5, 2014. Photo by Kelly Grow/California Department of Water Resources

The AuthorsSince the onset of California’s drought emergency 16 months ago, federal agencies and Congress have been seeking to help the state through funding and new and existing legislation.

Here are 10 recommendations for new federal actions. Although many focus on California, they are relevant to other western states facing similar challenges. Because droughts are a recurring — and increasingly likely — feature of the western American climate, we also address water management actions important for longer-term support of a healthy economy, society and environment.

Federal drought support for the near termthefeds

The drought has revealed different challenges in different sectors. (For a summary of drought impacts in California, click here.) Modest federal actions could support drought resilience in each of these sectors, in many cases without additional funds.

Rural communities: Some smaller, rural communities whose wells are running dry because of falling water tables need financial support for alternative sources, such as new wells, pipelines to other systems and, in the short-term, trucked-in water. Relaxation of federal funding rules could help.

(1)  Waive the 15-connection limit for federal support.
Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds are available to support such communities, but only if their water systems serve at least 15 connections, the threshold for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Many California communities rely on smaller systems and domestic wells where these funds cannot be used. Waiving the connection limit would likely be helpful in California and other western states.

Cities and farms: Federal action can lessen the socio-economic impacts of drought in urban and farm areas by enhancing the flexibility of water market and storage operations for federally owned water projects. Easing rules on allocation of federal matching grants could speed the process significantly.

(2)  Allow carry-over storage.
Many federal water projects in the West restrict the ability of contractors to carry reservoir water over into the next water year. For instance, the Central Valley Project (CVP) owns any water that is not taken out of reservoirs by March 1 (with the exception of San Luis Reservoir south of the Delta) [1]. This practice encourages potentially wasteful “use it or lose it” behavior and results in lower reservoir levels. During droughts, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should allow carryover. Those storing water for the next year would take on the risk of spillage if late-season rains make it necessary to release water for flood management. To minimize spillage, reservoir operators (including the Army Corps of Engineers) should experiment with real-time forecasts to inform flood releases.

(3)  Facilitate water trading.
Although federal projects such as the CVP accommodate water trading, the authorization process is often so cumbersome that it slows and even prevents trades. Legislation could direct the Secretary of the Interior to facilitate water transfers during drought emergencies and make available any excess infrastructure capacity for this purpose.
 For single-year transfers, legislation could also exempt trades of project water from the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), as California does under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). As described below, water users could contribute to an ecosystem restoration fund in exchange for this regulatory flexibility. In California, it would be especially useful for CVP exchange and settlement contractors to develop long-term contingent contracts with more junior contractors, especially those lacking other water sources for permanent crops.

(4)  Facilitate the distribution of federal cost shares for local projects. Both cities and farms can build drought resilience through development of non-traditional water sources, such as capture of recycled wastewater and stormwater. Flexible federal cost-share programs — which allow agencies to directly fund states for certain purposes (for example, capture of recycled water and stormwater, groundwater recharge and smart meters) — would speed distribution of federal matching funds by allowing states to directly apply for them. In California, the federal government could usefully support drought-resiliency projects by directing CALFED funds to cost-share on projects supported by state bond money.

Ecosystems: In California — and elsewhere in the West — more deliberate approaches are needed for environmental stewardship during droughts. This includes actions that safeguard species and help fund these efforts. Federal land and water resources can also contribute to these actions.

(5) Develop and implement a drought biodiversity strategy.
Along with the state, the federal government could support development of a biodiversity plan that guides federal and state actions. The Australians made great strides in ecosystem management by taking this route during their decade-long Millennium Drought. Such a strategy should include:

a.  Identifying aquatic refuges for at-risk species, with an initial focus on public lands for immediate special management; work with NGOs to identify and acquire refuges and water rights on private lands
b.  Identifying investments for conserving cold water, particularly in federal reservoirs
c.  Identifying and buying emergency water supplies for in-stream flows and wildlife refuges
d.  Acquiring water rights for the environment and giving water managers the flexibility to engage in short-term trades of this water
e.  Designating watersheds rich in native species as high priorities for conservation, especially those with spring water sources
f.  Building conservation facilities or repurposing existing hatcheries to rescue fishes whose habitat has disappeared [2]
g. Fostering a “Delta Science Center” for government and academic scientific work on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — similar to federal science efforts for the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes — with objectives that include improvement of the region’s resilience to drought 

(6)  Augment ecosystem restoration funds to build drought resilience.
Mindful of the need for any new federal funding proposal to identify a funding source, we propose the expansion of the ecosystem restoration fund model now used for the CVP. The project charges an ecosystem restoration fee of approximately $10 for irrigation users and $20 for municipal and industrial (M&I) users for each acre-foot of water delivered. During droughts, revenue collection would fall with deliveries, but the government could borrow against future revenues. This fund could also be augmented with a surcharge based on the fixed M&I rate or a percentage of the water price on transfers that use federal facilities or benefit from NEPA exemptions on short-term transfers proposed above. Such a small surcharge would amount to a minor price compared with the costs of water traded during California’s current drought. Finally, when environmental-flow regulations are relaxed during droughts for the benefit of urban and farm water users, those users could be charged for this water — similar to a market transaction — and the proceeds could go to this restoration fund [3].

(7)  Speed the ability for emergency listings of species threatened with extinction.
Numerous species not already listed under the Endangered Species Act are at risk, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) does not have the resources or procedures to list them. Part of the problem is that the agency depends almost entirely on its own in-house work for this purpose, even when scientifically rigorous analyses are available from state fish and wildlife agencies and other sources. USFWS could be required to supplement its own work with studies by other agencies to create emergency listing packages.

Statewide water operations: The federal government can improve the measurement, monitoring and forecasting information needed to manage scarce water resources fairly and efficiently.

(8)  Direct expertise and investments toward information systems.
U.S. Geological Survey and National Weather Service expertise and programs should be reinforced and directed toward (a) helping states improve gauging and modeling for water allocation and use, (b) investments in new technology to improve water-use measurement and accounting — such as metering and satellite remote-sensing for agricultural water use — and (c) groundwater modeling to expedite implementation of California’s new groundwater management law.

Longer-term federal actions for drought resilience

The above actions would work within existing institutional frameworks to improve the capacity of water systems to cope with droughts. As the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s study for the Colorado River basin and other studies show [4], water scarcity is expected to become increasingly common in the West. Institutional changes can increase the capacity to support the economy, society and environment.

(9)  Create an Independent System Operator (ISO) for water.
California in particular would benefit from creating an ISO for water — similar to the one for the state’s energy system. This would involve merging the federal and state water projects and operating them as a single public utility, with an ISO overseeing overall grid operations. The federal and state governments could seed the foundation of an ISO by charging it first with facilitating voluntary water marketing [5].

(10)  Promote regional integrated water management. Federal and state governments recognize the value of more coordinated, integrated water management to achieve multiple benefits, such as managing floodplains to simultaneously reduce flood risk, improve habitat and recharge aquifers. But an institutional framework is needed to truly coordinate the actions of the numerous federal, state and local agencies involved in water management. A promising approach is to organize by hydrologic regions or large watersheds. A law similar to the federal Coastal Zone Management Act would empower states to develop integrated watershed plans that federal agencies would then follow. This structure could be useful for more effectively addressing a host of challenges in managing water supply, water quality, drought, floods and ecosystems [6].

California’s drought highlights challenges facing water managers throughout the West. The challenges are likely to increase with a growing population and changing climate. Modest federal investments and policy changes can help reduce the economic, social and environmental impacts of the current drought. These same actions, along with long-term improvements in integrated water management and water trading, can help California and other western states prepare for inevitable future droughts.

For a PDF of this blog, click here.

Notes and further reading

[1] California’s State Water Project allows contractors to carry over their water from the prior year.
[2] A model is the Dexter National Fish Hatchery & Technology Center in New Mexico, the only federal facility dedicated exclusively to the study of threatened and endangered fish. Scientists there perform life history studies and analyze fish genetics while maintaining a refuge for 16 imperiled fish species.
[3] Lund, J., Hanak, E., B. Thompson, B. Gray, J. Mount, K. Jessoe. “Why Give Fish Flows Away for Free During a Drought?” California WaterBlog, Feb. 11, 2014
[4] U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study“, December 2012; Diffenbaugh, N.S., Swain, D.L., Touma, D. “Anthropogenic warming has increased drought risk in California,” PNAS 2015 : 1422385112v1-201422385
For a discussion of this idea, see Hanak, et al. “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation.” Public Policy Institute of California. 2011. Chapter 7.
[6] Hanak et al. “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation.” Public Policy Institute of California. 2011. Chapter 9; Thompson, B. 2012. “A federal act to promote integrated water management: Is the CZMA a useful model?” Environmental Law: vol 42-1, p. 201-240

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