Friday, May 24

They kidnapped a river in California. And no one stopped them.

During California’s most recent drought, officials went to great lengths to safeguard water supplies, issuing emergency regulations to curb its use by thousands of farms, utilities and irrigation districts.

It still wasn’t enough to stop growers in the state’s agricultural heartland from drying up several miles of a major river for nearly four months in 2022, in a previously unreported episode that raises questions about California’s ability to monitor and manage its water in a context of worsening drought. .

It is not uncommon during droughts for farmers and other water users in California to drain waterways to a trickle in some places. But the severity and duration of the 2022 river decline in this case, the Merced, where a flow meter showed no water flowing nearly every day from June to early October, stood out even to experts.

“I was very surprised to see a river this size without water,” said Jon Ambrose, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service biologist who visited the parched Merced River bed in August. “This is just not something we see. This is not something that should be seen as normal.

The Merced River originates in Yosemite National Park. It rushes through glacier-carved canyons and winds about 60 miles through the Central Valley before emptying into the San Joaquin River, which feeds the southern half of the valley.

California’s top water regulator, the State Water Resources Control Board, became aware of the Merced River’s drought conditions in late October 2022, only after they had begun to ease, Erik Ekdahl, the board’s deputy director, said in a report responsible for water rights. interview this week.

In investigating the matter, the committee has so far found that the river most likely dried up due to people taking the water legally, Mr. Ekdahl said. In other words, local farmers didn’t appear to have violated drought controls that year by drinking every last drop.

“This is where the layman would immediately ask, ‘Well, how could this happen?’” Mr. Ekdahl said. The reason, he said, is that in times of drought, California’s water system is more focused on protecting the rights of water users than helping the environment. In general, “you may take as much water as you are authorized to take under your permit or license until you are specifically told not to.”

California became an agricultural powerhouse by taming its rivers and subdividing their flows. But as the warming climate intensifies the state’s flood and drought cycles, its water distribution system is under strain.

The state grants a high degree of privilege to senior users, i.e. those who have been taking and using the river courses for a long time. This helped encourage large investments in irrigation. Now, however, virtually every drop has been claimed for one purpose or another, and officials are finding it increasingly difficult to manage supplies and protect the environment without harming the interests of longtime growers and other users.

In the summer of 2022, California was in its third consecutive year of drought, when staff members from NOAA Fisheries and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife found miles of the lower Merced severely dry. The upstream part of the river was still flowing vigorously, as flow meters indicated. But as it approached the confluence with the San Joaquin, it had become a series of intermittent pools, endangering threatened fish species, including rainbow trout and Chinook salmon.

“Our species are on the brink of extinction,” said Monica Gutierrez, a NOAA Fisheries biologist who visited Merced that August. “We can’t afford to have the riverbed dry for another year.”

According to state data, water users in the lower Merced include dairies, almond growers and vineyards that are part of the E. & J. Gallo Winery, which bills itself as the largest family-owned wine and spirits company in the world. A spokesman for Gallo declined to comment.

California’s drought controls in 2022 have cut supplies to many water users in the San Joaquin watershed, but not all. Many older users, or those who said they had been using the water longer, were not left out.

Even if the state water board had learned of the Merced’s failing conditions earlier that summer, it would still have taken months to issue new rules to protect the river, said Mr. Ekdahl, the official of the institution. Even imposing new rules to prevent it from running out in the future would be a long and complicated process, he said.

“A dry river is a catastrophe,” said Keiko Mertz, policy director of Friends of the River, a Sacramento environmental group. “The water utility should anticipate, manage and prevent this from happening.”

The California Water Board doesn’t have the staff to monitor river levels across the state, said Nell Green Nylen, a water policy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. As a result, he said, “I imagine there are smaller streams throughout the state, and maybe even some larger ones, where things like this happen all the time.”