Those in charge of the Tuolumne River, the lifeblood of much of Stanislaus County, feel like they're under siege.
The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts seem in constant crisis mode, trying to protect precious water rights from threats by state and federal agencies, by Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta interests and by fish advocates.
"Everyone wants our water," said Michael Frantz, TID board chairman. "We're always looking over our shoulder. It's scary."
About 8,000 farmers tilling 208,000 acres rely on that water, which also powers turbines for some of the electricity used by 211,000 customers. Some water is treated and makes its way into the taps of hundreds of thousands of people.
The MID and TID have spent millions of dollars defending water rights and will spend millions more.
But efforts to address a very real, potentially dangerous long-term threat to the river's source amount to a virtual trickle.
Climate warming, experts say, poses an extreme challenge to mountain snow that melts into rivers, providing California with about a third of its water. The average snow season decreased by 16 days from 1951 to 1996, and a quarter of the Sierra Nevada snowpack could vanish by 2050, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Some farmers might embrace a longer growing season, but shorter winters mean they need water earlier in the year. MID farmers for decades could count on the irrigation season starting about March 15; on Tuesday, the district board learned that it probably needs to gear up by March 5.
In his State of the Union speech last week, President Barack Obama noted that 12 of the hottest years on record came in the past 15, and said hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and floods "are now more frequent and intense." Last year was the warmest ever recorded, the U.S. Global Change Research Program reported.
Scientists have associated early spring snowmelt with more pests and wildfires and say the sea level will rise.
Studying climate change
Many agencies are quickening steps to address climate change.
The Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California at Merced is working with several groups on snowpack projects. They include, to the south of Stanislaus County, the Merced Irrigation District, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. The institute also has embarked on an in-depth, three-year climate-warming study addressing the San Joaquin River before it meets up with the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.
To the north, in mountains east of Sacramento, researchers are going full-bore on state-of-the-art snowpack studies for water and electric utilities, with help from the National Science Foundation.
"They really understand that climate change is going to have an impact on their water supply," said Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.
The institute hasn't been tapped for help from the MID or the TID.
East of Modesto, in the Stanislaus National Forest, UC Merced is in a three-year study to see how vegetation density affects snowpack. Forests have about twice as many shrubs and trees nowadays than 100 years ago, absorbing much more snowmelt than they used to; thinning might provide more water for rivers and farmers, scientists say.
That study is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture not irrigation agencies.
Next month, an airplane with fancy lasers is scheduled to begin a series of snowpack surveys in and near Tuolumne County. That study is backed by NASA, not irrigation agencies.
An Agricultural Water Management Plan being prepared for the MID says the Sierra Nevada snowpack has decreased 10 percent in the past century and warns of more trouble to come. The document relies on other studies done by the state and by San Francisco, whose Hetch Hetchy pipeline carries Tuolumne water across Stanislaus County to the Bay Area.
License up for renewal
Make no mistake: The MID and the TID are not strangers to research. They're spending at least $25 million in a multiyear effort to renew their Don Pedro hydropower license, with 35 separate, exhaustive studies, half focused on fish. If approved in a couple of years, the new license should be good for another 40 years and maybe even 50; we'll find out then.
One might think a study looking forward four or five decades would want to consider climate warming. Not so.
A Federal Energy Regulatory Commission spokeswoman took questions Friday, but didn't call back.
The districts' Maine-based consultant, HDR's John Devine, said the goal of such studies is to predict the effect that Don Pedro has on people, salmon, farms and so on. Federal officials don't bother with things that might affect Don Pedro, including climate change, Devine said.
Also, FERC shies from climate-change study because no one knows how bad things really will get, he said.
Said Bales: "It seems to me, if they don't consider the impact of climate warming and how to build resiliency, they're missing an opportunity. They need to go beyond regulatory issues and into strategic planning."
Modesto City Hall, which combines 30 million gallons daily from the river with well water for taps, hasn't done much better.
Its long-range planning document, called an urban water management plan, contains some weather data but no mention of what might happen if the climate changes. An 18-month study with Ceres, Turlock and Hughson as partners, called an integrated regional water management plan, promises a look at climate change when it's released in coming months, said Rich Ulm, Modesto's director of utilities planning.
David Hosley, the Sierra Nevada Research Institute's executive director, said leaders seem too preoccupied with putting out fires to think about eventual threats.
"We always try to separate the emergent from the important," Hosley said, "but often, the people making decisions are drawn back to the emergent. It's difficult to focus on things that could kill us and are likely to happen."
Cause seen as irrelevant
Leaders in both water districts said arguing over causes for climate warming seems pointless. It's a simple fact, they say, that they're dealing with more uncertainty every season.
"We can have a spirited debate over whether it's human-induced," said the TID's Frantz. "I don't care how conservative you are. The fact is, the climate is changing."
In the first 50 years of record keeping, starting in 1897, MID and TID directors saw far fewer and less dramatic swings between wet and dry years. In the six dec-ades since, wet years have gotten wetter, and dry years drier.
Problems, of course, emerge in dry times. Leaders have to get by with an average of 260,000 acre feet less these days during dry spells than they had about 60 years ago. That's about 10 percent of their usual allotment.
Farmers must learn to make water stretch by being more efficient, said Nick Blom, MID board chairman. He anticipates recommendations of a volunteer advisory committee looking for ways to improve the district's aging canal system.
A hallmark of climate warming is that with less snow, you often get more rain, and snow melts earlier in the year. The U.S. Global Change Research Program predicts that California runoff will double by 2090.
That bodes ill for farmers needing more water in the summer, because in the spring, the MID and the TID can't hold unlimited amounts in reservoirs; space must be reserved for sudden melting, to prevent flooding.
Also, energy use increases as summer days get hotter just when there will be less water to create power.
The most likely solution, MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said, is dams.
"Climate change is a real reason to increase storage," agreed Frantz, whose district has two or three old plans for off-stream holding reservoirs. They're gathering dust on a bookshelf because a new dam in California is about as likely as snowdrifts in Modesto.
"In today's regulatory environment," he said, "it's virtually impossible to build new storage."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.