Sacramento River with Sutter Buttes in background

Episode 26: Water Planning in the Sacramento Valley

Water has long been a contentious subject in California.  As the nation’s most populous state, leading the nation in farm production and a state dedicated to environmental protection, it’s easy to understand why.

David Guy
David Guy

The severe, ongoing drought only puts a greater focus on water.

While there’s hope for a wet fall and winter, Sacramento Valley water managers and other stakeholders are doing what they can to prepare for all outcomes.

Teamwork and coordination are invaluable, especially during difficult times.

“We are really fortunate in the Sacramento River Basin,” said Northern California Water Association President David Guy. “We have a real cohesive set of leaders that work very well together. Our managers and counsel work well together. That’s critical, particularly as we head into these next years that could be very challenging. I think every river system in the valley works together. We realize we’re all invested in the same types of actions and need to do the same types of things to be able to make sure that we have water supplies for the farms, cities and refuges.”

Guy said he hopes more robust scenario planning this fall will further bring the region together, to be unified and best prepared for whatever 2022 holds for our water supply.

 While the drought took its toll in our region, including a 100,000 acre reduction in rice planting, the familiar fall activities of harvest and the Pacific Flyway wildlife migration are welcomed. This year has been an uphill battle for those safeguarding water for all who need it and for future generations.

Thad Bettner
Thad Bettner

“It’s a daily, weekly, monthly and annual balancing act,” remarked Thad Bettner, General Manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the largest water district in the Sacramento Valley. “We’re always making those sorts of decisions about how best to manage and use our supplies. A lot of environmental assets sit in our backyard, so we want to make sure we are meeting those needs as well. As a district, we’re very transparent in all of the things that we do and we’d love to have other partners come alongside us in helping us make these key decisions.”

 Harvest of America’s sushi rice is nearing its peak, with growers reporting good quality and production from the fields they were able to plant. Grower Don Bransford in Colusa said he planted about 25 percent less acreage this year due to the water cutbacks. Bransford has long  been a leader in this region on key issues, and water is no exception.  He said planning and coordination for 2022 must be a priority.

Rice farmer Don Bransford
Don Bransford

“The challenges are great, as they were this year,” he said. “There obviously is not enough water to go around, so the environment was shorted and farming acreage had to be reduced because of the curtailments. Urban areas had a little better supply situation, so they have not experienced what agriculture has. Moving forward, I believe we have huge challenges in this coming year.”

Those who know and love the Sacramento Valley understand the need to preserve this unique and essential part of California.

“We are all very proud of our little communities in the Sacramento Valley, many of which are dependent on a viable rice industry,” Bransford said. “What other commodity can you grow that has over 200 wildlife species inhabiting a growing crop, and then once that crop is harvested, then you have the migratory waterfowl moving in for a winter feast. Here we have land that’s producing food and habitat – and they coexist wonderfully.”

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Episode Transcript

Michael Anderson: This past year is ranking up there in the top five of our driest years, and you pair it with last year, 2020, which was also dry, and now you’re looking at the second driest since ’76, ’77. Very extreme pair of drought years there.

Jim Morris: California state climatologist, Michael Anderson, describing our greater climate variability, which has contributed to this highly disappointing year for rain and snowfall.

Michael Anderson: We’re a lot warmer now than we were in ’76, ’77. April, May and June, that was the warmest and the driest in 125 years of record. The narrative of climate change for California is that we see a warming in temperatures, more rain, less snow, and more extremes. And we’re seeing that play out in this last decade.

Jim Morris: Drought impacts are being felt far and wide, including 100,000 fewer acres of rice planted here in the Sacramento Valley. What lies ahead for 2022? Only time will tell, but there’s already a lot of thought being put into water management for the next year. Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers for more than 30 years to help tell their stories. This year has been extremely dry with significant impacts. There is widespread hope that fall and winter will be wet, but of course that’s far from guaranteed. So I think it would be helpful to hear from regional leaders about this critical subject.

Jim Morris: David Guy is president of the Northern California Water Association. He’s been NCWA’s president for 11 years. He also served eight years as their executive director. We spent time together a long time ago at the California Farm Bureau, and he and his family were in Yosemite living in the park from 2007 to 2010 as David was CEO of the nonprofit, Yosemite Association. And I will be forever jealous of that opportunity you had. So looking ahead, David, what can water managers do to prepare for the possibility of another dry year?

David Guy: Well, I think that as we look forward to 2022, there’s still some work that has to be done on 2021. And I think the Pacific Flyway programs that are underway right now with the Rice Commission, with the water suppliers, with the conservation organizations are really, I think, stage setting for next year. The birds are so important and the species are so important. We’ll be doing some more of that in the floodplain later in the winter for fish. And then as we start to go into the fall, obviously we need to start thinking about precipitation. And if there is going to be any precipitation this fall or early winter, we want to be able to capture that precipitation.

David Guy: So I think that’s what the water managers in the Sacramento Valley and throughout the state do really well. So I think we want to pull as much water into storage as we can. I think we want to be able to recharge groundwater as much as we can, and we want to be able to get water out on the ground for birds and fish as much as we can. So I think there’s going to be a real concerted effort to help make sure that we utilize our water this fall and winter the best we can because everything we do this fall and winter will set the stage for next year.

Jim Morris: To effectively do the most with such a precious resource, you need a lot of people with common goals. How would you describe the cohesiveness of water management in our region?

David Guy: Well, I think we’re real fortunate in the Sacramento River basin and we have a real cohesive set of leaders that work very well together and our managers and council and everybody else work really well together, and I think that’s critical particularly as we head into these next years that could be very challenging. I think every river system in the valley works together. We realize that we’re all invested in the same types of actions and that we need to do the same types of things to be able to make sure that we have water supplies for the farms, cities, refuges. So we’re going to be doing some scenario planning this year in the fall to start planning for 2022 in a way that we’ve really never done before, and I think that will even further bring the region together, hopefully to unify around some planning for next year, and then the actions that will be necessary.

Jim Morris: Northern California Water Association has a ridgetop to river mouth holistic water management approach. For someone not fully immersed in the water world, what does that mean?

David Guy:

Well, I think is what it really means is that the water obviously starts in the mountains and then it flows down through the valley. And the bottom line is this really calls on the managers in this region to manage the water the best they can. And they already manage water in this way. A lot of our agencies manage water from ridgetop to river mouth. And I think the other couple things that it does is water obviously flows from one area to the other, and we try to utilize that water the best we can and sometimes that water’s used multiple times as it goes through the system and we want to be able to continue that.

David Guy:The other thing of course, that it really allows is that we know that salmon, for example, which is a big part of the region, you need to address every salmon life stage for them to be successful, and that means from the ridgetop to the river mouth. And then of course, we can’t control what goes on in the ocean, but we can sure help influence what goes on from the ridgetop to the river mouth. And I think that’s really just calling on the best of our managers to do what they really do well.

Jim Morris: There is some criticism that comes up on how much water is used by farms and ranches, and my belief on this is it’s really not an either or that that water can help in many different ways. And taking rice, for example, that water is used to grow a crop that’s America sushi rice. It also helps rural communities and our economy, and it also helps the Pacific Flyway migration of millions of birds. And now salmon are benefiting from rice farming too. So when you look at the collaboration, the multiple uses of water, what thoughts do you have about how effective that is going on right now in the Sacramento Valley?

David Guy: The Sacramento Valley does this better than anybody. Quite honestly, they use water for cities and rural communities. We get water out for the farms. We get water out for the refuges. And quite honestly, it’s a lot of the same water. It’s a lot of synchronized water management that happens in the region. So yeah, I find that when people want to say that one use is being used at the sacrifice of others, that’s usually just a false choice. So we find that you can do all of that. You just have to be creative and you just have to get the leaders in the region to want to embrace that.

David Guy: And we do that in the Sacramento better than anybody. This last year, for example, most agriculture in the state really received zero surface water. And there were some areas that received maybe about 50 percent of their supplies, and I think to their credit, these water suppliers utilize that water to their benefit and they not only use the water for the farms, but they’re now working to use that water for the birds and will be using it for water for the salmon later in the year. And I think there’s a sequence there that could actually work well in the Sacramento Valley as well.

Jim Morris: And I’m glad you mentioned those surface water cutbacks because there was an incredible news cycle this past year, and maybe that was lost, but there were very significant, huge reductions in the amount of surface water available in our region. We’ve had dry years before and certainly will again. So what can be learned from our most recent dry year this year?

David Guy: Well, I think we just have to call on everybody’s creativity and working together. I think that’s what we’ve learned. We have a program, our dry year task force, where we’ve worked with state and federal agencies, and I think having that communication is just essential. We’re going to be doing this scenario planning going into next year and really focusing on what are the scenarios that we may see in 2022? And let’s be honest, some of those scenarios are fairly ugly for the region and some of those scenarios may involve a wet 2022, which we’re all hoping for, but the bottom line is we have to be prepared for all of those scenarios and I think having the managers thinking about that together, I think we’ll be really effective.

David Guy: I think there’s also to a lot of actions that can be taken in the meantime that are not as high profile, but again, some of the things we talked about moving water into storage, moving water out on the floodplain, moving water out into the refuges, I think those are the kind of things that are happening and are really important as we head into 2022.

Jim Morris: Moving water out on the floodplains, that is a growing area of emphasis in our region, and talk a little bit about that. What does that look like and how does it help?

David Guy: Well, I think we’ve seen in the last 50 years in California, that we’ve used the same formula. How much water do we put into the Delta and who has to give up that water to flow into the Delta? Well, that path has led to declines in fish. That path has led to declines in water supply reliability. So I think a lot of people are saying, “Why don’t we try something different?” Well, fortunately the scientists over at the University of California have been pointing to the floodplain for some time now and saying, “This is where we can get the best benefit for fish and wildlife.” So I think there’s a real concerted effort, big coalition, the Floodplain Forward Coalition, is working on how do we reactivate our floodplain? And of course, there’s a whole lot of things that have gone into that, but I think we’ve seen that there’s been success with waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway.

David Guy: We’ve seen that there’s been success with spring run salmon on Butte Creek. And a big part of both of those efforts is this idea of reactivating the floodplain. So, we think that’s the new approach and the best part about it is that we can do that in synchronicity with the farming and all the things that we do in the region, and we can also do it probably with a lot less water than just putting a bunch of water into the Delta that doesn’t seem to be providing any benefits for anything.

Jim Morris: And it’s interesting when you talk about reactivating the floodplain, it may sound like this incredible amount of water, but really it’s a shallow amount of water that does get a lot of benefit from it. And we’ve seen that in the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley. So some of the issues in this past year we’ve had include voluntary agreements, water transfers, and groundwater. They came up a lot and those are pretty big topics. How do you feel those issues or maybe others may fit into 2022.

David Guy:Groundwater of course is the resource that people go to when they don’t have surface water, and I think that will continue. Obviously there’s a concerted effort through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the plans that are coming early next year to really manage our groundwater basin sustainably. So I think there’s a real concerted effort at the local level to do that. So we’ll hopefully get that in place and people can start taking some of those actions as soon as possible to protect the groundwater for future uses. The voluntary agreements, I think are really just essential for the region. We need stability in that Bay Delta process. And without that stability, we’re just going to keep having supplies in Northern California threaten in various regulatory processes. So we need that stability and I think there’s some interest in the Administration in moving that forward. So I think 2022’s got a lot in store, but I think we’re going to be prepared for the year no matter what it looks like with respect to precipitation.

Jim Morris: And you mentioned the word stability. How does that factor in when we look at the water rights system that is in place?

David Guy: I think the water rights system in California works quite well and it works very well in the Sacramento River basin. It’s painful for some, because some get their waters curtailed and other there don’t, but I think everybody knows how that works. I think people have certain expectations. They’ve built their business models around that. So in our view, the water system works really well. We’re going to continue to work with the State Water Board to make that process even better, but I really think that making the water rights system obviously work is really important. And we know there’s going to be critics and some academics and others who are going to want to suggest that we have to rewrite our water rights system, and obviously that would destabilize California water immensely. So we need to make the water right system work, and then we need to be able to put water into storage and let the managers do what they do best, which is obviously a big part of the water rights system as well.

Jim Morris: I am really impressed when I see the meetings in the Sacramento Valley. There are members of the environmental community, there’s urban representatives, agriculture, water officials, of course. So what is your assessment on the willingness to find water solutions in our valley?

David Guy: You’re right, Jim. I mean, we have an amazing group of folks who are working hard out on the ground to really implement solutions. And again, they’re for cities, they’re for rural communities, they’re for farms and ranches, they’re for the environment. And I don’t think anybody’s done that better than the Sacramento Valley. Kudos to the leaders and the rice community in the valley for really step up and doing all the work that you’ve done. I think as we go forward, we’re going to continue to work with that group and I think that work is really proving fruitful.

David Guy: Unfortunately, we also know there’s a group of litigators that are sitting out there, who their business model is not to solve problems. Their business model is to file lawsuits and to try to disrupt what we’re doing in the Sacramento River Basin. So unfortunately we’re going to need to be part of that process as well, to make sure that they can’t in fact disrupt the Sacramento River Basin. And in the meantime, let’s keep working with those who show up and get their nails dirty and want to work out on the ground, because that’s how this is going to get better.

Jim Morris: What is at stake here? I’ve spent my entire life in the Sacramento Valley. Absolutely love it. But I think for a lot of people that are driving on I-5 or Highway 99, and they’re just heading from one place to the next and don’t understand the full beauty and importance of it. So what’s at stake here in making sure this region stays whole?

David Guy: Well, Jim, you started off by mentioning my time in Yosemite and of course, I just have wonderful memories of Yosemite and our national park system is beyond equal in this world. But I think the Sacramento Valley is on that level as far as the grandeur and as what it is, it’s just so vast and big, but we have what? 2 million acres of farmland, some of the best farmland in the world. We have seven national wildlife refuges, 50 state wildlife areas, four runs of salmon. We have cities and rural communities that really sparkle and have wonderful people in them, and I think it’s water that really brings this region together in a special way, and I think that’s what’s at stake and I hope that we can all roll up our sleeves, continue to work together to make sure that we have water for this region for all of those purposes. It’s not and/or. It’s how do we do both? And I think that’s what this region really excels at.

Jim Morris: I’m in Willows at the headquarters of Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the largest water district in the Sacramento Valley, covering 175,000 acres, much of it farmland. There are communities and several wildlife refuges here, as well. There were fields that went unplanned this year, including rice, the underground water table has been pressured, and they’ve had to deal with severe surface water cutbacks. Thad Bettner has been head of this water district since 2006. Of course, that’s included several dry years. And as we get through this year, Thad, how taxing has it been?

Thad Bettner: I have to say that you have been here for 15 years and doing this water thing for over 30. I would say this has probably been the most challenging year I’ve ever experienced in my career. I look back and I’ve talked to other people about the COVID year of last year and how challenging that was, but honestly this year has been even more challenging than that. So just given the constraints, the challenging hydrologic conditions, the internal needs that we have for trying to meet water for our growers, for the environment, for the refuges that we serve, and then also the concerns about trying to protect salmon in the river, and just trying to balance all those competing needs has been very challenging this year. The good thing is we’ve kind of gotten through it. We’re here in the fall, so that’s good news, but certainly, we have another challenging year ahead of us going into next year.

Jim Morris: What are some lessons that might be learned from this year as we head into a potentially dry 2022, which could magnify all of these impacts?

Thad Bettner: I think certainly the challenge is just from a surface water standpoint, how do we manage the system to one, get water where it’s needed for people, for the different crops that we grow, for certainly protecting fish and I’m not minimizing them at all by same fish. Thirdly, but just, I think in terms of just the environment, it’s broader than just fisheries. We have birds that we’re trying to manage for right now, et cetera. So I think the broader environmental needs are very significant. And then the other thing we’re facing here in the Sacramento Valley is a lot of these groundwater sustainability plans are getting adopted in January. So we’ll also be going into next year, once those plans are adopted, actually starting to implement them. So how we also manage our water supply for the benefit of maintaining our sustainable groundwater system here in the Sacramento Valley is going to be vitally important as well.

Jim Morris: How important is coordination and cooperation among all of the stakeholders?

Thad Bettner: It’s very important. I mean, honestly I spend most of my day just working with other agencies, other managers, groundwater folks, talking to different regulatory agencies about operations, talking to our environmental partners on restoration projects, and then just trying to meet our own internal staff needs. We have about 75 employees here in the district. So just trying to make sure that just as an entity, as a company, we continue to have good bonds internally. So it’s been most of our days, just trying to foster sorts of relationships.

Jim Morris: Longer term, it would be great, I think to have more water storage like Sites Reservoir, and how would that help in the long term for all Californians?

Thad Bettner: We’ve been an advocate for Sites for decades. It’s right next to our district and certainly parts of our facilities would be used both to fill and drain sites. I think one of the most significant benefits of Sites, not just of the water supply, it would provide to those folks who are investing in the project, but the project would provide just a lot more flexibility to some of our backbone infrastructure like Shasta, like Oroville, which I’m sure everybody has heard are historic lows this year. So having additional storage up in sites could help some of these dry years to provide more water into the system and ultimately provide more water for environmental benefits.

Jim Morris: The purpose is not to try to get Sites filled in a dry year, but when we have those abundant rainfall years, to take advantage of that in a better way than we’re doing now.

Thad Bettner: One of the things about the Sacramento Valley that a lot of folks don’t recognize at least on the Sacramento River, is that it’s really more of a rain-driven watershed than a snow-fed watershed. So, under climate change, a lot of the forecasts are saying actually that more rainfall will fall in the Sacramento River system, which could lead to more runoff, which, again, Sites Reservoir would be relying on those really wet years, high runoff years to fill Sites and then draw that water out of storage in the dryer years.

Jim Morris: What responsibility do you feel you’re trying to have as much reasonable water to all the needs here in your district, but you also have to safeguard this resource for down the road? What kind of a balancing act is that?

Thad Bettner: Well, I would say it’s a daily, weekly, monthly, and annually balancing act. I mean, we’re always making those sorts of decisions about how best to manage and use our supplies and also looking for just broader from… A lot of these assets, like environmental assets sit in our backyard. So how do we make sure we’re also providing and meeting those needs as well? So I would say for us as a district, we’re very transparent in all the things that we do and would love to have other partners come alongside us and helping us make some of these key decisions.

Jim Morris: It’s harvest time in rice country, including here in Colusa, the largest rice growing county in America. I’m visiting with grower Don Bransford, who in addition to farming is extremely active in his community and with statewide service. Don, first of all, how is harvest going this year and how has the drought impacted your farm?

Don Bransford: Well, so far harvest is going pretty well. This has been one of those years where we’ve had a few more breakdowns than we’d like, but we’re progressing well and the moisture’s holding up. As far as the drought goes, we fallowed about 25 percent of our ground due to our reductions in supply, according to our contracts.

Jim Morris: Thanks for taking time during such a busy time. It is windy today, but the harvesters and the bankout wagons are going and things are looking great. So how important is it when we look ahead to 2022, that there is some planning and coordination in terms of water?

Don Bransford: I think the planning and coordination is extremely important. For this cropping year, we started planning in early February for the potential of a drought. We worked with the regulators, NGOs and other water districts to see how we might adapt our systems to meet a lot of needs of the environment, the farms and the urban areas. So it was a challenge.

Jim Morris: What kind of pressures are there on water supplies? It’s always challenging in California, but it seems lately to be exceptionally so. There will always be discussion, debate, and dispute. So what kind of challenges from a farming perspective, do you see on the water supply?

Don Bransford: The challenges are great as they were this year. There obviously is not enough water to go around. So the environment was shorted. Farming acreage had to be reduced because of the curtailments. Urban areas had a little better supply situation. So they have not experienced what agriculture has, but moving forward, I believe we have huge challenges in this coming year. A number of wells were used to make up for deficient supplies. I think moving into the new year, there’s going to be concern about how much groundwater’s available, which puts more pressure on surface supplies. And then you have urban areas who were able to get through this past year with… Their supplies are short.

Don Bransford: We’ve been contacted by a number of urban districts about the potential for water transfers. And then obviously, those growers south of the Delta that have contracts are most likely going to be very short of water. It’s going to be tremendously challenging. We are going to start planning and actually this next month up here in the north state, we’re going to work with NGOs, the state and federal regulators and the other irrigation districts to figure out how to best use every drop of water that we have available and hopefully some of that water can be used two or three times to achieve or meet needs of any number of demands.

Jim Morris: This is a really special area. The communities, Colusa, I love Gridley, Biggs, Marysville, Yuba City, Richvale, on and on. The farms, the environment, the unique communities, how important is it to have these discussions and try to maintain this special thing that we have in the Sacramento Valley?

Don Bransford: I think it’s very important. We are all very proud of our little communities in the Sacramento Valley, many of which are dependent on a viable rice industry. We’re here at harvest this year and the wildlife are everywhere. I mean, where else… What other commodity can you grow which has over 200 species of wildlife inhabiting a growing crop? And then once that crop is harvested, then you have the migratory waterfowl moving in for a winter feast. Just this morning, I also saw some sandhill cranes. They arrive about this time every year. In the same fields, the geese have started to move into the fields at night to forage the rice that’s left behind by harvesters. About 50 percent of the feed for all migrating waterfowl are located in these rice fields. These fields are ecosystems and the only way to replace those ecosystems would be to build wetlands, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but here we have land that’s producing food and habitat and they coexist wonderfully.

Jim Morris: Another sign of fall in our valley, the ducks and geese are coming back. I’m at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in Willows, a great place for your family to visit. If we are fortunate to have abundant rain and snow in the coming months, perhaps everyone can exhale a bit, but at the moment, next year looks like it will be a major test. Hopefully with collaboration, cooperation, and creativity, we will persevere. Thank you to our interviewees, David Guy, Thad Bettner, Don Bransford, and Michael Anderson. We will, of course, keep you updated on this issue as we get farther into fall and winter. You can go to to find out more. Please subscribe and spread the word. And thanks for listening.