Water & Drought

Feds to California farmers: Water reserves low despite recent rains

Using California farms to replenish groundwater

Farmers are harvesting El Niño by flooding their fields.
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Farmers are harvesting El Niño by flooding their fields.

Even as steady rains drenched the Sacramento Valley on Friday, federal dam managers issued a bleak proclamation to farmers hopeful that recent rain and snow might translate into more water deliveries for their crops.

On Friday, the Bureau of Reclamation issued notice that reservoir levels behind Central Valley Project dams remained unusually low despite recent rains and heavy snowpack.

The notice is likely to portend another rough year for the thousands of Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley farmers whose water districts contract with the bureau for deliveries. Last year, the federal Central Valley Project made zero deliveries for the second straight year to many of its customers because of the drought.

Farmers with junior water rights in the San Joaquin Valley are bracing for another year with no deliveries, said Johnny Amaral, a deputy general manager for Westlands Water District, which serves farmers over a vast swath of land in Fresno and Kings counties.

“Zero allocation again will be traumatic – not just for us – but for everybody who depends on water deliveries,” Amaral said. “It’s a huge blow.”

Bureau officials said Friday that “reservoir carryover storage” at the end of the 2015 water year, which ended in September, was 2.9 million acre-feet. That is 24 percent of the system’s total capacity and 47 percent of the 15-year average for six critical Central Valley Project reservoirs: Shasta, New Melones, Trinity, Folsom, Millerton and San Luis.

Even with recent rains, officials said the reservoirs remain nearly 1 million acre-feet lower than they were a year ago.

Spokesman Shane Hunt said the Bureau of Reclamation is required to notify contractors by Feb. 15 whether 2016 will be another “critical” year for water allocations. The actual allocation figure will be announced in late February. The statistics released Friday represent a more general supply outlook.

“It kind of sets the stage for what’s coming next month,” Hunt said.

Last month, the state Department of Water Resources told farmers and cities that rely on the State Water Project they can expect just 10 percent of normal deliveries this year. That’s below the 20 percent allocation shipped last year.

So far California’s winter precipitation has been somewhat above average, but not extraordinary enough to reverse the impacts of four severely dry years. The statewide snowpack is 113 percent of average for this date. It’s 124 percent in the northern Sierra.

Rainfall in the Sacramento Valley is running at 114 percent of average, and 120 percent in the San Joaquin Valley.

“With this promising news and El Niño storms beginning to materialize, we are feeling encouraged,” said David Murillo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific regional director. “However, storage in our reservoirs remains low, and we must be prudent as we develop initial operation plans and allocations for CVP water contractors.”

Amaral, the Westlands deputy director, said he was frustrated that even with recent storms causing regional flooding, water is washing out to sea instead of heading south through pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Last week, state officials said they had to shut down the pumps that divert water to Southern California to protect endangered Delta smelt.

Westlands is among the agricultural districts pressing to loosen endangered species protections to provide more water for cropland.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.

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