Water & Drought

Despite Trump promise and a wet winter, California farmers don’t get full water supply

Concerned farm owners and farmworkers strategize over immigration

Despite their symbiotic relationship, farmworkers and farmers enter this debate from vastly different perspectives.
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Despite their symbiotic relationship, farmworkers and farmers enter this debate from vastly different perspectives.

California farmers have a sympathetic president in the White House and have enjoyed one of the wettest winters on record. But those in a giant swath of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country, are due to get only two-thirds of their water allotment this year from the federal government.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Wednesday the sprawling agricultural irrigation districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley can expect to receive 65 percent of their maximum contracted allotments this year from the network of pumps, dams and canals that make up the Central Valley Project. These districts are responsible for significant portions of the almonds, pistachios, tomatoes and other commodities grown in the U.S.

The allotments are far higher than the meager water supplies San Joaquin Valley received during California’s five-year drought, and federal officials said actual deliveries might increase by midyear. Nonetheless, many farmers were seething Wednesday. They complained that land will go unplanted because they can’t count on having all the water they need.

“We are putting tomatoes in the ground as we speak,” said Sarah Woolf, a grower in the sprawling Westlands Water District outside Fresno. With more water, “I could have probably put in another 160 acres.”

As they have for years, farmers blamed the shortfall on regulations protecting endangered fish species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which severely limited pumping during the drought.

They have an ally in President Donald Trump. Last spring at a Fresno campaign rally, he made disparaging remarks about endangered fish and promised cheering crowds holding “Farmers for Trump” signs that he would “open up the water” deliveries once he got into the White House. Farm groups said they’re hopeful Trump, with the aid of a Republican Congress, can eventually bring more water to the valley.

“If 100 percent is not possible this year, when, if ever, will it be possible?” asked Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager at Westlands, which represents 1,000 square miles of farmland in Fresno and Kings counties. “We have a regulatory problem, and this year is the evidence.”

Federal officials and environmental groups said fish are not to blame this year.

“Pumping hasn’t been limited by environmental restrictions,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Instead, the challenge for 2017 is the wet winter itself, they said. So much rain fell that there’s no more room to store it all. That’s the case at San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, the main storage facility south of the delta. San Luis is filled to the brim.

“It’s really the plumbing,” said Ron Milligan, the bureau’s Central Valley Project operations manager.

Milligan said the 65 percent figure doesn’t tell the whole story. Some of the water stored in San Luis is “carryover” water that farmers banked last year. It’s available for use, but can’t be counted in the 2017 allocations.

In addition, the 65 percent figure could grow to as much as 80 percent, he said. Milligan said CVP operators are using conservative snowmelt forecasts and conditions could improve as spring turns to summer.

As it is, the 65 percent allocation for the San Joaquin Valley’s west side dwarfs the 5 percent delivery west side farmers received last year. The previous two years they received no deliveries at all from the federal government. They haven’t gotten a 100 percent allocation since 2006.

With little surface water available, San Joaquin Valley farmers have relied heavily on groundwater pumping to keep their farms green. All that pumping has in turn been blamed for drying up water to farmworker communities and causing the land to sink across a vast stretch of the Central Valley.

Elsewhere in the state, the surface water supplies are more plentiful. Most farmers on the federal system are getting 100 percent deliveries this year. That includes rice and orchard growers north of Sacramento, who rank much higher in the CVP’s complicated pecking order of water deliveries.

The various allocation figures – 100 percent for some farmers, 65 percent for others – reflect the patchwork-quilt nature of federal water allocations, which are based on a complicated set of historical and contractual rights. Farmers in much of the Sacramento Valley and the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, with long-held claims to river water, generally get more generous allocations from the CVP. Most agricultural districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley didn’t start receiving federal deliveries until the late 1960s and tend to get the lowest allocations.

The bureau took the unusual step this year of announcing the allocations in stages. On Feb. 28, the agency said some contractors would get 100 percent allocations, including many Sacramento Valley agricultural districts and those on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley with superior rights. But many farmers were told to wait for their allocations, frustrating growers who are preparing for the planting season and triggering suspicions that they would get allocations significantly below 100 percent.

Separately, customers of the State Water Project, which is operated by California and runs parallel to the federal CVP system, have been told to expect at least 60 percent allocations this year, although that figure could rise. The state’s contractors, including major cities in Southern California, received 60 percent last year.

After being closed to allow for assessment, repairs and dredging o the Feather River below, the Oroville Dam main spillway again is funneling water from fast-filling Lake Oroville. Releases roared down the still-compromised concrete chute on Frida

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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