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Stories from the valley

How Water Managers Deal with Dry Years

Contributed by Jennifer Harrison

The tiny town of Grimes, population less than 400, may yield your next sushi roll. Or at least the premium medium grain rice that goes in your favorite roll. Grimes is home to not only rice fields, but also Reclamation District 108, that is tasked with managing and delivering water to nearly 48,000 acres of farmland within southern Colusa County and northern Yolo County. This is quite a feat in normal times, but when entering a third consecutive dry year, how is water managed for the benefit of all? I talked with Lewis Bair, General Manager of Reclamation District 108 to find out.

Lewis Bair

What is growing here?

Lewis Bair: RD 108 has a great range of crops made possible by our diversity of soil types as well as our traditionally reliable water supply.  Our primary crop is rice, but we also grow walnuts, tomatoes, onions, sunflowers, melons, alfalfa, vine seed, among others.

What exactly is Reclamation District 108?

Lewis Bair: RD 108 is an organization designed and funded by landowners to provide common services needed by that same group of landowners.  In RD 108, this includes irrigation, drainage and flood protection.  Our priorities include operations and maintenance of our 400 miles of irrigation/drainage canals and pumping systems and educating policymakers on important issues.

How is water traditionally managed and how has new technology helped?

Lewis Bair: In the Valley, we have what is called a flow through system. The Valley presents itself in a way that allows water to flow through one field onto the next, like a series of steps. This results in a very efficient use of water, meaning almost all of the water goes toward producing life whether its food, or wildlife.

We have invested a great deal in automation and data collection. This allows growers to irrigate at precisely the right time for their crop ensuring the maximum production out of every drop. Our growers know exactly how much water they are using and can see those totals for all their fields in real-time on their cell phones.

What is the process of water curtailments, where water supplies are limited and reduced for farmers and growers?

Lewis Bair: Curtailments apply to water rights managed by the State. Water is curtailed in the reverse order of when the water rights were issued; the most recent is curtailed first. RD 108 has a stored water contract for the period from April 1 through October 31 and much more junior rights in the non-contract months. This year there simply isn’t enough stored water to provide us with the water we would typically use to farm. This year we are anticipating a large reduction in our stored water available under our contract. We anticipate this will result in a majority of our land to be fallowed, which will significantly impact our communities and businesses that support farming. Curtailments can also limit RD 108 starting in November when we typically apply water to decompose rice straw as well as provide wetland habitat for the Pacific Flyway and salmon. We will have to wait until there is sufficient rain to occur so that the runoff allows those curtailments to be lifted allowing us to divert water under those more recent water rights. With such a short water supply, RD 108 is not anticipating participating in any transfers.

What are the cooperative approaches and creative partnerships that can be formed to mitigate the impact of dry years?

Lewis Bair: We will need to lean heavily on our partnership along the Pacific Flyway. Millions of birds migrate through the Central Valley and typically use our flooded rice fields to provide two-thirds of their food supply. With such limited rice planned in the valley, it will be critical to flood every acre that is able to be farmed as well as flooding of additional fields. Last year, the state provided funding for landowners to pump groundwater onto these fields.  If this is done early, it will also be critical to turn these fields into fish food factories for our stressed salmon juveniles that will be out-migrating through the worst river conditions that we have seen in a long time. These flooded fields turn the residual carbon in the fields into a feast of fish food that can be drained back to the Sacramento River. Finally, our Valley’s small communities are going to face unprecedented unemployment. State and federal support for these communities to mitigate unemployment and ensure they have healthy and reliable drinking water is critical.

Partnerships and collaboration is nothing new for RD 108, how have you been working together for the benefit of all?

Lewis Bair: We not only take our water stewardship seriously, we also consider improving environmental conditions as part of our mission.  Recent science has shown just how important floodplains are to the recovery of salmon in our valley. We were already active in the Sacramento Valley Salmon Recovery program working on spawning and side channel improvements, but the floodplains seemed to fit our expertise since we are located in the center of the natural floodplains in the Valley. We are currently leading a program called Floodplains Reimagined that looks at what in ongoing in the Yolo Bypass and looks to build a ground up proposal within the historic floodplains upstream of Yolo Bypass. The program is open to all but has a foundation of respecting existing uses and working on collaborative, voluntary solutions.

What, in your opinion is the hope in terms of water management moving forward?

Lewis Bair: While annual precipitation can be unpredictable, it is incumbent upon us to find ways to be productive for the environment and for agriculture under both conditions, wet and dry years. We are currently working to improve use of our groundwater resource. This includes improvements to monitoring, recharge capacity and pumping facilities. We also believe additional storage, including Sites Reservoir, can help by storing water during wet years to help during drought.