It has been said that Mark Twain once noted, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” This observation may hold particular meaning for California farmers who have been in contention with urban and environmental entities over this natural resource for many, many years.
Douglas Waltz, who farms rice and almonds with his sons Stephen and Clyde and grandsons Clinton and Joseph near Wheatland, is putting in his 59th rice crop this year. The ground that the Waltzes farm has been in their family for 108 years, but rice wasn’t part of the mix until 1953. Using “Cats and cans” – Caterpillar tractors and scrapers – Douglas leveled the red dirt, drilled wells and started growing rice.
As rice farming gained popularity in this area, the Yuba River, which flows through this region, may have looked like a prime source of surface water for agriculture to take pressure off groundwater levels in a historically water-deficient area. However, serious issues dating back to the mid-1800s, including debris clogging the river from hydraulic mining to damaged salmon and steelhead spawning beds to flooding on a fairly regular basis, made this option not an easy one to accomplish.
According to a Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) publication, “In January 1959, Yuba County went to the state legislature with a bill to create a local water agency. In June, the legislature passed a law creating the Yuba County Water Agency to finance and build a flood control and water supply project.”
“I worked on projects in the 1960s and again in the 1980s to help farmers gain access to surface water from the Yuba River, but neither one of them worked out,” Douglas says. “After 50 years of trying to get a water project out here, the Yuba-Wheatland Canal Project finally became a reality in 2010.”
Douglas, who now serves as president of the Wheatland Water District, says adoption of the Lower Yuba River Accord in 2008 by urban, environmental and agricultural entities played a key role in moving the Yuba-Wheatland Canal Project forward.
Project Embodies Numerous Benefits
According to Scott Matyac, Water Resources Manager for the YCWA, the Yuba-Wheatland Canal Project supplies surface water for irrigation from the YCWA’s New Bullards Bar Reservoir to agricultural lands within Wheatland Water District, which has previously relied on groundwater for its irrigation water supply.
“The canal project was constructed during the period from July 2008 through September 2009,” Matyac says. “The construction cost, including land acquisition, permitting, engineering and construction, was approximately $16 million.
“The project was financed by YCWA, Wheatland Water District (WWD) and a grant from a water conservation and groundwater recharge grant program administered by the State of California Department of Water Resources,” he adds. “Wheatland Water District will own the portion of the canal within its boundary. YCWA owns the portion of the canal outside the boundary of WWD.”
The main benefits of this new surface water supply are as follows:
• Provides a reliable surface water supply to an area historically deficient in water.
• Improves the quality of the irrigation supply by reducing adverse affects on crop production of high dissolved salt concentrations in the existing groundwater supply.
• Helps to recharge depleted groundwater aquifers.
• Improves the City of Wheatland’s water reliability by shifting some agricultural groundwater pumping to surface water.
More Details About The Yuba-Wheatland Canal Project
“Conjunctive use involves the management of surface water and groundwater supplies to maximize the yield of the overall water resource,” Matyac explains. “This includes reverting to groundwater during dry years and then replenishing – recharging – that supply with surface water in order to avoid groundwater overdrafts.
“Wheatland Water District is located in the South Yuba Sub-Basin, where, historically, surface water supplies were limited and agricultural and urban water users relied on groundwater supplies,” he adds. “This resulted in an overdraft estimated at up to 100 feet between 1949 and 1981. YCWA began delivering surface water from New Bullards Bar Reservoir to the South Sub-Basin beginning in 1984. Since that time, the groundwater elevation has recovered.”
Farmers Find Canal Project Invaluable
Beginning in 2010, the Waltzes had access to the surface water for about 30 days. Then, because the weather turned dry, they had to revert to using wells again based on the groundwater substitution terms set forth in the Lower Yuba River Accord.
“Although we did not get to use the surface water as much as we would have liked to last year, we are using it this year for our 1,150 acres of rice and our orchard acreage,” says Stephen Waltz. “Some of the main advantages of our having access to the water via the Yuba-Wheatland Canal Project is being able to put in bigger pumps so we can pump faster and having a more reliable water supply in which the water level doesn’t fluctuate.”
Tib Belza, YCWA Director and local farmer, reiterates what the Waltz family says in that Yuba County farmers will benefit from the Yuba Accord.
“Water rights held by the YCWA and the local water districts are no longer threatened by controversy over the instream fisheries flows,” Belza says. “This certainly is invaluable in enabling Yuba County’s farmers to make capital investments, to hire workers and to successfully grow wholesome food in California, like rice, peaches and plums.”