Home Restaurant California Farmers and Cattle Ranchers Struggle to Survive Unprecedented Water Cuts

California Farmers and Cattle Ranchers Struggle to Survive Unprecedented Water Cuts

Standing on the grassy plateau where water is piped onto his property, Josh Davy wished his feet were wet and his irrigation ditch full.

Three years ago, when he sank everything he had into 66 acres of irrigated pasture in Shasta County, Davy thought he’d drought-proofed his cattle operation.

He’d been banking on the Sacramento Valley’s water supply, which was guaranteed even during the deepest of droughts almost 60 years ago, when irrigation districts up and down the valley cut a deal with the federal government. Buying this land was his insurance against droughts expected to intensify with climate change.

But this spring, for the first time ever, no water is flowing through his pipes and canals or those of his neighbors: The district won’t be delivering any water to Davy or any of its roughly 800 other customers.

Without rain for rangeland grass where his cows forage in the winter, or water to irrigate his pasture, he will probably have to sell at least half the cows he’s raised for breeding and sell all of his calves a season early. Davy expects to lose money this year—more than $120,000, he guesses, and if it happens again next year, he won’t be able to pay his bills.

“I would never have bought (this land) if I had known it wasn’t going to get water. Not when you pay the price you pay for it,” he said. “If this is a one-time fluke, I’ll suck it up and be fine. But I don’t have another year in me.”

Since 1964, the water supply of the Western Sacramento Valley has been virtually guaranteed, even during critically dry years, the result of an arcane water rights system and legal agreements underlying operations of the Central Valley Project, the federal government’s massive water management system.

But as California weathers a third year of drought, conditions have grown so dry and reservoirs so low that the valley’s landowners and irrigation districts are being forced to give up more water than ever before. Now, this region, which has relied on the largest portion of federally-managed water flowing from Lake Shasta, is wrestling with what to do as its deal with the federal government no longer protects them.

An irrigation canal on Davy’s pasture in Shasta County is bone-dry on April 27, 2022. (Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters)

All relying on the lake’s supplies will make sacrifices: Many are struggling to keep their cattle and crops. Refuges for wildlife also will have to cope with less water from Lake Shasta, endangering migratory birds. And the eggs of endangered salmon that depend on cold water released from Shasta Dam are expected to die by the millions.

For decades, water wars have pitted growers and ranchers against nature, north against south. But in this new California, where everyone is suffering, no one is guaranteed anything.

“In the end, when one person wins, everybody loses,” Davy said. “And we don’t actually solve the problem.”

Portioning Out the River’s Precious Water

This parched valley was once a land of floods, regularly inundated when the Sacramento River overflowed to turn grasslands and riverbank forests into a vast, seasonal lake.

Settlers that flooded into California on the tide of the Gold Rush of 1849 staked their claims to the river’s flow with notices posted to trees in a system of “first in time, first in right.”

The river was corralled by levees, the region replumbed with drainage ditches and irrigation canals. Grasslands and swamps lush with tules turned to ranches and wheat fields, then to orchards, irrigated pasture and rice.

The federal government took over in the 1930s, when it began building the Central Valley Project.’s Shasta Dam, which displaced the Winnemem Wintu people. A 20-year negotiation between water rights holders and the US Bureau of Reclamation culminated in a deal in 1964.

Map source: Congressional Research Service (CRS)

Map source: Congressional Research Service (CRS)

Today, under the agreements, which were renewed in 2005, nearly 150 landowners and irrigation districts that supply almost half a million acres of agriculture in the western Sacramento Valley are entitled to receive about three times more water than Los Angeles and San Francisco use in a year.

It’s a controversial amount in the parched state. Before this year, the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, as they’re called, received the largest portion of the federally-managed supply of water that flows from Shasta Lake. It’s more than cities receive, more than wildlife refuges, more even than other powerful agricultural suppliers like the Westlands Water District farther south.

Their contract bars the irrigation districts’ supply from being cut by more than a quarter in critically dry years. During the last drought in 2014, federal efforts to cut it to 40 percent of the contracted amount were met with resistance, and deliveries ultimately increased to the full 75 percent allocation for the dry year.

But this year, facing exceptionally dry conditions, the irrigation districts negotiated with state and federal agencies, and agreed in March to reduce their water deliveries to 18 percent. Other agricultural suppliers with less senior rights are set to get nothing.

Low water levels at Shasta Lake on April 25, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Low water levels at Shasta Lake on April 25, 2022. (Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters)

Growers understand that they have to sacrifice some water this year, said Thaddeus Bettner, general manager for Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the largest of the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors and one of the largest irrigation districts in the state. But he wondered why irrigation districts in the Western Sacramento Valley draw so much of the blame.

“I understand we’re bigger than everybody so we catch the focus,” Bettner said. “We’re just trying to survive this year. Frankly, it’s just complete devastation up here. And it’s unfortunate that the view seems to be that we should get hurt even more to save fish.”

Cutting deliveries to growers means that more water can flow through the rivers, which slightly raises the chances for more endangered winter-run Chinook salmon to survive this year.

“They had the water rights to take 75 percent of their allocation instead of 18 percent, and we were anticipating another total bust,” said Howard Brown, senior policy advisor with NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “One hundred percent temperature dependent mortality (of salmon eggs) would not have been something out of reason to imagine.”

Yet more than half of the eggs of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon are expected to still die this year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

State and federal biologists are racing to move some of the adult salmon to a cooler tributary of the Sacramento River and a hatchery.

“We’re spreading the risk around, and putting our eggs in different baskets,” Brown said. “The animal that’s on the flag of California is extinct. How many can we afford to lose before we lose our identity as people and as citizens of California?”

‘Nothing Like I Thought I’d Ever See’ in the Sacramento Valley

In any other year, Davy would run his cattle on rain-fed rangeland he leases in Tehama County until late spring before moving the herd to his home pasture, kept green and lush with spring and summer irrigation.

Davy, who grew up roping and running cattle, supports his career as a full-time rancher with his other full-time job as a farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, specializing in livestock, rangelands and natural resources.

Three years ago, he sold his home in Cottonwood, on the Shasta-Tehama county line, for a fixer-upper nearby with holes in the floor, a shoddy electrical system and windows that wouldn’t close. This fixer-upper had two inarguable selling points: a view of Mount Shasta and water from the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District, a settlement contractor.

This year, without rain, the grass where his cows forage through the winter crunches underfoot.

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