Water & Drought

Many Central Valley farmers face severe water shortages despite easing drought

Video: Water shortage will mean less California farmland

California's water shortage won't end when the drought is over. New groundwater regulations will result in hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland being retired..
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California's water shortage won't end when the drought is over. New groundwater regulations will result in hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland being retired..

In another sign that California’s drought has eased but the state’s water system is far from fully recovered, federal regulators announced Friday that Sacramento Valley farmers would get full water deliveries for the upcoming growing season, but many San Joaquin Valley growers would face another year of severe shortages.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in an eagerly anticipated announcement, outlined the initial 2016 water allocations from the Central Valley Project, the federal government’s massive network of reservoirs, pumps and canals.

The results after a relatively wet winter and early spring: Rice growers and others north of the Delta can expect 100 percent of their contracted water deliveries. That represents a significant improvement over last year, when even those farmers with some of the state’s most senior water rights lost more than 25 percent of the water they would receive in a non-drought year.

The picture is far less rosy below the federal pumping station near Tracy that supplies farmers south of the Delta. The sprawling agricultural districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley were told they’re getting only 5 percent of their contract supply.

“We are basically, in our view, still in the middle of a drought,” said Pablo Arroyave, deputy regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, in a conference call with reporters.

While a 5 percent supply is better than the zero allocation they received in each of the past two years, those farmers will again have to scramble to buy water from growers with stronger water rights – assuming the officials who monitor endangered fish in the Delta even allow for the extra water to be pumped south. The limited water shipments will put continued pressure on the valley’s groundwater basins, which in many areas have been pumped to record low levels in the drought.

The huge disparities in water allocations reflect California’s hodgepodge water rights system, which generally favors farmers north of the Delta. They also reflect the uneven performance of El Niño, which delivered a lot of rain and snow in the Sacramento Valley and northern Sierra but relatively little south of the Delta. On top of that, concerns over critically endangered fish have prompted federal and state officials to limit pumping to the south state even though Delta flows surged dramatically after March storms. The pumping restrictions drew complaints from south-of-Delta advocates who argue that stormwater flowing out to sea is being “wasted.”

Arroyave said that, in total, the federally operated reservoirs hold 86 percent of their average water for this time of year, but the south-of-Delta facilities are comparatively empty. New Melones Reservoir, which dams the Stanislaus River and is the state’s fourth-largest reservoir, is just 26 percent full – a figure so low that the Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District and Stockton East Water District will receive no water from the CVP this year.

Lester Snow, former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, urged caution about releasing too much stored water, saying the south state remains in “extreme, exceptional” drought.

“Those reservoirs could be drained in a heartbeat,” Snow said. “It’s like we’re living paycheck to paycheck, meaning from rainy season to rainy season.”

By contrast, the state’s farming lobby lamented the 5 percent allocation to agricultural districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. More than 500,000 acres of farmland were fallowed last year because of water shortages, particularly south of the Delta.

“It’s ridiculous but unfortunately entirely predictable,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager of Westlands Water District, which delivers CVP water to a vast area on the west side of the valley. “Life in the Central Valley can’t continue to operate this way.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation’s president, Paul Wenger, added: “We’ll never know how much water might have been available this summer if we had captured more of the water that flowed to sea at the height of the El Niño storm surges.”

Federal and state officials have throttled back their water pumping from the Delta in recent weeks out of concern it could harm Delta smelt and other endangered fish species whose numbers have plummeted to unprecedented levels in the drought. Congressional Republicans and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, have urged the White House to pump more.

Reclamation officials said Friday that if federal fishery agencies give the OK, pumping could be increased to Westlands and others beyond 5 percent later in the season.

Friday’s announcement didn’t bring completely bleak news for San Joaquin Valley farmers. The “exchange” contractors on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley were told they can expect 100 percent deliveries this year. Those farmers have special historical water rights.

Plus, in an earlier announcement, the State Water Project, which also delivers Sacramento Valley water through the Delta to farmers and the cities of Southern California, projected a 45 percent allocation this year, more than twice as much as last year.

Meanwhile, urban water districts in Northern California continue to push for relaxation of statewide water-conservation mandates as the region’s reservoirs fill up. The San Juan Water District in Granite Bay, in a direct challenge to the state, recently said it will switch to voluntary conservation this year.

On Friday, the city of Roseville said it will allow residents to water their lawns twice a week beginning Monday instead of once. “The move is about a month earlier than anticipated, acknowledging improved local watershed conditions and a healthier snowpack,” the city announced. The city urged residents, however, to continue to use water efficiently.

At Wallace Weir, officials announced improvements to the region’s fish and farming management.

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

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