Destined for Great Water – Kristin Sicke

Thursday, Nov 3rd, 2022

Introducing the Water Resources Managers Series:
  How their Ridgetop to River Mouth Approach in the Sacramento Valley is Serving Water for Multiple Benefits


There are many wonderful attributes in the Sacramento Valley with a central ingredient being the talented water resources managers who work in this region and are devoted to ridgetop to river mouth water management that serves water for multiple benefits.

To get a better glimpse into the region and see the talented managers and the multi-disciplinary approach they pursue every day to continually improve water management, we encourage you to read this series, which starts below with Kristin Sicke’s personal story, or you can listen to the various personal stories on podcast at Stories You Haven’t Heard. As you will see, the talented managers come from a variety of backgrounds— engineering, biology, forestry and even firefighting. These disciplines are all essential to modern, 21st century management of our water resources and provide the background necessary to effectively provide water for multiple benefits.

There has been a concerted effort in the Sacramento Valley to integrate our natural and human resources in a graceful way. This includes ensuring water is served in a coordinated fashion to cities and rural communities, farms, fish, birds, wildlife, hydropower, and recreation in a way that advances the special way of life in our region. The water resources manager series builds upon the landowner and conservation series that revealed the depth of landowner-conservation partnerships in the region and the efforts underway to improve fish and wildlife in harmony with farming and serving water for our rural communities. We hope you enjoy this series.

If you faced the ocean from your beach chair on the warm smooth Carlsbad sand, you’d be hard pressed to miss the young, blonde-haired girl splashing in the waves. You’d have a sense that this girl came to this spot often, and you could even surmise this girl would likely spend her life in the water.

Fast forward to today, and you’d have been correct, only maybe not the water-focused job you were envisioning. While most kids who live near the ocean have dreams of becoming a marine biologist or professional surfer, Kristin was unsure of what she wanted to do. She was just certain that she needed to spend her time in water.

Her college decision is what got her here – the Sacramento Valley. Instead of choosing one of the many coastal schools, she decided to travel inland to the heart of the agricultural world, University of California – Davis. Her East Coast roots include a line of electricians, but she would find her own current in civil engineering and specifically in water systems. A master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering would provide the crash course in water resource management and soon enough Kristin was ankle deep in the industry.

“I was very interested in evaluating alternative water supply solutions for vulnerable communities. Growing up in southern California instilled an immense appreciation of the State’s water storage and delivery system,” said Kristin Sicke, General Manager of the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

This curiosity landed her the job at the Department of Water Resources. Learning the intricacies of water supply and flood management at the state level, Kristin began to aid local agencies all over California in various technical assistance and funding programs available. It is in this role she would meet Tim O’Halloran who led the District for nearly two decades.

“He brought me in as an assistant general manager as he noticed my desire to effect more immediate change; I wanted to work closely with those whose livelihood depended on the water they received each year.”

With Tim’s retirement on the horizon, he attempted to provide as much guidance and support to Kristin as he could. Kristin says Tim has been like a father figure to her, educating, mentoring, and helping her gain the confidence to deal with the complexities of managing a local irrigation district in wet and dry years.

With the landowners’ water supply under constant threat, the District has had to shift the way they manage their precious resources. Covering more than 200,000 acres and providing water for 110 customers and roughly 20 industrial contracts, managing the District requires a great deal of patience, flexibility, and ingenuity, especially when surface water availability and irrigation deliveries don’t come as they once did. Paired with junior water rights that only allow storm flow diversions from Cache Creek when there is excess water in the Delta, the District has had to think creatively and effectively optimize groundwater and surface water management.

“In 2015, we started a formal winter recharge program to ensure our drought reserve, groundwater, was available in dry years. We knew we had to come up with a sustainable plan to ensure the next generation of farmers could work these lands.”

At the time, groundwater recharge was becoming not only an idea, but a practice. Since then, the District has been on the forefront of replenishing groundwater supplies in the rainy season. With 160 miles of unlined canals, the dirt-lined irrigation channels help funnel about 25% of the surface water back down below the surface.

“In this case, our leaky system works to our advantage. Historically, it was thought concrete canals were best to minimize losses, but today, this earthen real estate is a huge asset for enhancing our storage opportunities in the winter months.”

In 2016, the District successfully put back 11,000 acre-feet of water and in “excess” years has been working to maintain that level of recharge. A major benefit is the ability to monitor 26 of the 130 groundwater wells in real-time. Since the 1970s every well has been measured once in the spring and then a second time in the fall, it gives the District a clear understanding of how much groundwater is used and available each year.

With the District facing the worst drought period in its history, Kristin believes responsible recharge and efficient surface management will get them through these tough times. And even during boom years, she says the District will need to remain focused on continuing to recharge groundwater supplies.

Kristin still goes to the beach when she can, and the little girl playing in the waves, well that is Kristin’s daughter, Cecilia. It is too early to tell what she’ll grow up to be, but Kristin says as a toddler she is already discovering her love of the ocean. Maybe one day she will follow in the splashes of her mother.

Listen to podcast below.

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