Water law in California is almost too complex for anyone to understand, but the politics are simple: The dry parts of the state have more votes and money than the wet parts. This is true both of urban/suburban areas and agriculture.
Most years, the Sacramento Valley has more water than its residents and farmers can use. Flooding is a bigger threat than drought. Our farm is located at the southwestern corner of the Sacramento Valley, an area that gets three times the annual rainfall of Stockton, just 60 miles south, and 50% more than Sacramento, 30 miles east.
Unlike the majority of farms in California, whose water comes from hundreds or even thousands of miles away, Terra Firma’s water is local. Lake Berryessa is just 10 miles away, and supplies about 80 percent of our irrigation water (The rest is groundwater). Since its creation in the 1960s, Berryessa has never dropped so low that water deliveries were restricted. That’s because the huge watershed it drains is a magnet for precipitation.
But wasn’t this year a drought? Sure, in terms of the total amount of rain, 2011/2012 was one of the driest on record. But Lake Berryessa didn’t drop very far. That had a lot to do with 2010/2011 — a very wet year that filled up the reservoir. And because the rains in 2011 continued through the entire spring, farmers in our area used very little of the copious amount of water the reservoir received that year.
This is the other difference between the area we farm and much of the Central Valley: the winter rains are almost always sufficient to keep the ground wet and the water table for high part of the year. These means we don’t have to irrigate as much as places like Bakersfield that get just a few inches of rain annually..
The current round of storms we’re having has mostly missed the southern part of the state — as is often the case. Here at Terra Firma we got 6 inches of rain last weekend and we’ve already gotten more than half of our average precipitation for the year. According to the local irrigation district, it will just take one more big storm and Lake Berryessa will be completely full.
So since we’ve got such a nice headstart, we’d be really happy around here if we could get a few weeks of dry weather to get some things done in the short, busy days we’ve got left before our holiday break from December 23 until January 6th (more on that next week). It’s plenty muddy already.