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Drought's Assault Continues in California

Though it hasn't rained in parts of corn and soybean country in a few weeks, the drought has largely receded in much of the Corn Belt, and incremental improvements in crop moisture conditions are underway in parts of the long-parched Plains.

The drought is far from over, however; in fact, it's the worst it's been in a long time -- some might say ever -- in the agriculture-rich areas of the Central Valley and southern California.

The vast majority of California is in either extreme or exceptional drought -- the two worst categories -- according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Thursday's update of the Drought Monitor shows almost 30% of the state is in the two most severe drought categories. At the beginning of 2014, that number was just over 8%.

"Little or no precipitation for the five-day period is expected in California and the Great Basin," according to Thursday's U.S. Drought Monitor update, which adds that recent rains of up to an inch in parts of California "weren’t even close to making a dent in the long-term drought."

Rainfall is definitely at the heart of the ongoing severe drought in California. But a growing shortfall in the amount of water in reservoir storage in that state -- fueled both by rain and Sierra Nevada mountain snowmelt -- is starting to move front-and-center in the massive ag-rich state's water fight. A typical seasonal withdrawal of stored water is around 8 million acre-feet, according to David Miskus of the NOAA National Weather Service. The last two years have seen that number balloon to 11 million acre-feet, and that water's not getting replaced at the rate it needs to be in order to be sustainable.

"In California, the June 30 reservoir update had storage at 60% of average -- better than this time in 1977 when storage was at a record low of 41%. Storage totaled 17.25 million acre-feet (maf), and a typical seasonal withdrawal is 8.24 maf," Miskus says. "The last two years' (2012 and 2013), withdrawal has topped 11 maf. Due to early melting of this year’s meager snowpack, withdrawal through June 30 was already at 2.1 maf (vs. average withdrawal through June 30 of less than 0.6 maf)."

While just getting enough rain and snow to recharge existing reservoirs -- especially with California's population is set to be almost double what it was in the late 1970s by 2030 -- is the natural way to ease the state's water worries, there are infrastructure developments California ag leaders are trying to move forward to boost the state's natural water-retention capacity.

"California has spent 35 years pursuing a conservation-only strategy that has proven disastrous. When we last built a new reservoir to capture rain or snowmelt, in the late 1970s, California’s population was 23 million. Now, we have more than 38 million residents, on the way to 44.3 million by 2030. We must build additional and expanded water storage if we are going to be prepared to handle drought periods, to accommodate population growth, and capture the warmer, flashier storm runoff linked to climate change," says California Farm Bureau Federation president Paul Wenger. "Statewide regulation certainly won’t fix our groundwater needs, just as it has failed to provide solutions to surface water needs."

Ultimately, improving surface water retention through reservoirs and canal systems -- both in ag areas and their adjacent urban centers -- will mean the difference between a future for California's agriculture and one in which the industry is essentially absent altogether.

"The increasing pressure on groundwater has come from an antiquated surface-water system that’s inadequate in the face of continued urban growth and ineffective environmental regulation, combined with our inability to create new and expanded water storage and our inability to manage existing reservoirs effectively to provide water during drought periods," Wenger says. "Rather than seizing on the drought to impose a rushed and poorly designed set of so-called groundwater reforms, we should see the drought as a prediction of what California will continue to experience if we don’t improve our water storage system. Otherwise, we’re destined not only to repeat, but to increase losses suffered by California farmers, their employees, and the millions who depend on them for nutritious, local food, and to ensure water shortages that harm every resident and industry in our state."

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