Home Wine Business Editorial Viticulture Drip Drop: California’s Water Supply Is Replenishing — But Unevenly

Drip Drop: California’s Water Supply Is Replenishing — But Unevenly

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California manages water through an incredibly complex patchwork of federal, state, county, municipal and water district regulation.

By Jeff Siegel

 

Remember the past couple of years of water cuts and restrictions for California wineries and vineyards, courtesy of several years of drought? They’re mostly memories as the wine business moves into the 2024 growing season.

The key word there is “mostly.”

Irrigating Zinfandel in Mendocino County

“We’ve had two good years of rain and snow, so no one expects cutbacks,” says Stuart Spencer, the executive director of the Lodi Wine Growers trade group. His comments echo what many others said during an informal survey of trade groups, growers and water management organizations. “At the moment, water is not at the top of our list of problems.”

All might be well in Lodi, but some other regions reported cuts in their 2024 water supply. In the Westlands Water District, which manages the water supply on the westside of Fresno and Kings counties, a Westlands spokeswoman said the agency was allocated less water than it had contracted for: “[It’s] an incredibly disappointing and unjustifiably low allocation for our district water users,” she said. 

How is this possible, given the state’s historic rain and snow in the 2023 water year and optimistic forecasts for the 2024 water year? As of May 31, precipitation stood at 104% of normal for the state, while major reservoirs are at 118% of normal, according to figures compiled by California Water Watch.

Where the water is

“Water year” is the term used by the U.S. Geological Survey to report surface water supply in the 12-month period from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the following year. The 2022 and 2023 water years, which ended on Sept. 30 of each of those years, were plentiful — even historic.

A full and flourishing Sacramento River Delta

But allocating water in California is not that simple. First, much of the record levels of rain fell in Southern California, nowhere near Wine Country. Tropical Storm Hillary dumped some two inches of rain on Palm Springs in 16 hours last August, about half as much as the city normally gets for an entire year.

Second, the state manages water through an incredibly complex patchwork of federal, state, county, municipal and water district regulation – and sometimes without regulation at all, if it’s on private property – that dates to the days when just 100,000 people lived in Los Angeles and Napa County farmers still grew wheat. The state’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA (pronounced “sigma”), gives even more say to local water management groups, based on the theory they know what’s best for their region.

For example, Westlands manages water through a contract with the Federal Bureau of Reclamation for the Central Valley Project, and it can only hand out as much water as the bureau gives it. In this case, it’s less than Westlands wants – 40% of what’s available and not the 50% that the water agency asked for.

One size does not fit all

Even though Lodi hasn’t seen severe water restrictions for a couple of years, says Spencer, the situation is more complex elsewhere. For instance, precipitation totals for much of Wine Country, according to the state, remain at 80 to 100% of normal.

Snowmelt fills a high lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The state’s snowpack was at 13% of the average peak, which is measured on April 1, according to state figures, and sat at 44% of average at the end of May. Snowpack totals remain a concern, say state officials, because many of the record-producing storms over the last year have been warmer and resulted in more rain than snow. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is a natural reservoir that provides about 30% of California’s water supply. 

While precipitation for Napa County has been almost 33 inches for the 2024 water year — 104% of average — and Sonoma County is at almost 52 inches (116%), many parts of the San Joaquin Delta are at less than 100% of average, as are parts of the Sacramento water management regions.

“Yes, we’re out of the drought, but we’re still under a watch, and we’re still practicing water conservation,” says Kimy Wall, a spokeswoman for Rancho Water, which oversees the water  supply in an area that includes Temecula in Southern California. “So we don’t foresee any water reductions.”

Which is the good news that most of the state’s growers and wineries have been looking forward to for the past several years.

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Jeff Siegel

Jeff Siegel is an award-winning wine writer, as well as the co-founder and former president of Drink Local Wine, the first locavore wine movement. He has taught wine, beer, spirits, and beverage management at El Centro College and the Cordon Bleu in Dallas. He has written seven books, including “The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine.”

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