The strain on water supplies in this serious drought year was evident this week, as major landowners in the Sacramento Valley protested the federal government’s forecast that it will deliver only 40 percent of usual water supplies.
That 40 percent allotment for the so-called Sacramento River settlement contractors is only a forecast by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, based on drought conditions that are expected to deplete snowmelt. Such a low allocation has never been made before, and it is well below the 75 percent that the settlement contractors say is the minimum they should receive under any conditions.
The protests are coming from a range of interests: the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which distributes water to farmers in the Sacramento Valley; the Conaway Preservation Group, which owns farmland in the Yolo Bypass; and the city of Redding.
“This 40 percent allocation flies in the face of what our contracts say,” said Stuart Somach, the Sacramento attorney representing the three groups. “I think protest is a weak term for what we’re doing. We do consider this to be serious.”
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The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Central Valley Project, the federal system of dams, canals and pumps that moves water from Shasta and Folsom reservoirs, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and on to farm and urban areas as far south as Mendota in Fresno County.
Somach said he suspects Reclamation is planning to reduce deliveries to his clients to ensure water can be diverted south of the Delta to the urban areas and wildlife refuges that the agency also is obligated to serve, but which have legally inferior access to water.
Reclamation spokesman Louis Moore said his agency is merely trying to juggle a lot of demand for very limited water this year.
“We know this is unprecedented,” Moore said. “We know that it is difficult. But we really just don’t have the resource available.”
The conflict highlights important differences between water rights and water contracts in California.
Somach’s clients hold water rights that predate construction of Shasta Dam. These rights represent a legal entitlement to divert water from a stream. His clients are called “settlement contractors” because, when the dam was completed in 1945, it effectively blocked their access to water that once flowed freely in the river. They agreed to “settle” their objections to this blockage so Reclamation could operate the dam. In return, Reclamation promised to serve their water rights in perpetuity using water stored at the dam.
Their contracts with Reclamation, Somach said, require the agency to provide a minimum of 75 percent of their usual contract deliveries, even in the driest of years.
Water contractors, on the other hand, generally have no water rights. Instead, a water contract represents an opportunity to buy water from Reclamation when it is available. The range of availability under these contracts is generally much greater than the terms governing the settlement contracts.
“We’re senior water rights holders, and quite frankly have the ability to pump whatever we want to pump out of the river if we believe Reclamation has breached its relationship with us,” Somach said.
Reclamation has a variety of other obligations to meet, however. Although it primarily serves agricultural interests, its contractors include some urban agencies and wildlife refuges, including cities such as Coalinga and Avenal and refuges such as the Mendota Wildlife Area in Fresno County. In severe droughts, these usually are considered a priority over agriculture, because many farm fields can be left unplanted in a drought.
In its allocation forecast on Feb. 21, Reclamation warned all its agricultural contractors they could receive zero water deliveries this year, except settlement contractors, which would get 40 percent. Farm groups say that scenario would result in thousands of acres of farmland being taken out of production this year.
Urban contractors and wildlife refuges, meanwhile, would get 50 percent and 40 percent of their contract allocations, respectively.
“We are not unmindful of the fact that this is an extreme drought situation,” Somach said. “But those uses of water are junior to our contracts. They are junior to our underlying water rights.”
Somach and his clients met with Reclamation officials Tuesday to ask why the allocation appears to conflict with their contracts. He said Reclamation promised some answers within a week.
Moore also said Reclamation will strive to update its water allocation forecast on a weekly basis, if possible, based on weather conditions, rather than waiting for the usual monthly cycle.
“We are trying to operate for now, but also think about what (would happen) if we don’t receive any additional precipitation for the rest of the year,” Moore said. “It would become even more of a strain.”