Feds say many Central Valley farmers will get no water deliveries


Hundreds of farmers in the Central Valley were told Friday they can expect zero water deliveries this year from the federal government, the latest fallout from what is likely to be a fourth straight drought year in California.

The announcement came from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates a system of reservoirs and canals that make up the Central Valley Project. It mirrors a similar announcement last year that led to hundreds of thousands of farm acres being fallowed.

“Today’s picture is not a pretty one,” said David Murillo, the Reclamation Bureau’s regional director. “The rain events in December were encouraging, but the persistent dry weather in the first two months of this year underscores our need to prepare for another year of drought.”

The announcement does not affect all farms. Some farmers in the Central Valley don’t rely on Reclamation Bureau water at all. And some that do also have other sources of water, including their own diversion rights in rivers and streams, groundwater wells, and the ability to purchase from other suppliers. But for many, Central Valley Project water makes up a large share of their supply, and a zero allocation means land will have to be fallowed again this year.

Friday’s announcement marked a first forecast for water deliveries for the year. The allocation could improve if the rest of winter turns wetter.

Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, said the announcement was not a surprise given the dry winter that has stricken California again.

“It’s going to be another rough spring, but I think we’ll make it work like we did last year,” he said.

The zero water allocation hits particularly hard in portions of the San Joaquin Valley, where alternative water supplies are more limited. This includes Westlands Water District, which serves a huge area of Fresno County and is the nation’s largest agricultural irrigation district. The drought has caused thousands of acres to be fallowed there and put many people out of work in the farm-centric economy

“Today is a very sad day for the people in California and all over the country who depend on food grown by farmers who receive water from the Central Valley Project,” Don Peracchi, president of Westlands Water District, said in a statement.

The announcement also affects some urban water suppliers that rely on the Central Valley Project, or CVP, including several that serve homes and businesses in suburban areas of Sacramento. Urban customers were told they will receive enough water to meet basic health and safety needs, or 25 percent of their historical use, whichever is greater.

One of these is San Juan Water District, which serves Orangevale, Fair Oaks, Folsom and other nearby communities. The district provides water directly to residential and commercial customers, and it also sells water wholesale to other water providers.

Besides CVP water, the district also has its own groundwater wells and separate water rights in the American River to draw from.

San Juan’s retail water customers reduced their water use 32 percent last year in response to the drought, said Shauna Lorance, the district’s general manager. She said even more conservation likely will be required this year.

“My expectation is, based on the drier forecast, that it will become more critical this year,” she said.

Bettner’s irrigation district is in a different class of CVP water buyer. The Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District is known as an “exchange contractor” because it has its own water rights in the Sacramento River that were “exchanged” for Reclamation Bureau water when Shasta Dam was built. As a result, contracts require the Reclamation Bureau to guarantee exchange contractors a larger share of water, even in drought years.

Friday’s announcement includes a 75 percent water allocation for exchange contractors. That water will be allocated differently because of the drought, however. As it did last year, Glenn-Colusa this year is likely to agree to take delivery of its CVP water later in the year to coincide with the out-migration of juvenile salmon in the Sacramento River, which are also at risk during the drought.

As a result, Bettner said he’s especially hopeful for a wet spring, which would help some farms survive until that CVP water can be delivered.

“We’re going to need some rain in March and April just to kind of wet up the Valley again,” he said.

The situation this year has been confusing to some observers because December was very wet. In many communities, including Sacramento, total rainfall is not very far below normal for the season. The runoff from those storms also left reservoirs in better shape than at the same time last year.

But those December storms were warm, and there have been virtually none since. As a result, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is low, only 19 percent of average as of Thursday. This means there will be little snowmelt to keep reservoirs full when warm weather boosts water demand.

“Last year wasn’t great, but we’re actually tracking a little bit worse than that at this point,” said Ron Milligan, Central Valley Project operations manager. “We think this year could be more severe.”

There are still several weeks left in the official winter period, and wet March storms have been known to help ease droughts in the past. A relatively cold storm was expected to bring critical snow to the Sierra Nevada this weekend, although it is not expected to be a big snow producer.

“We’re hoping for a March miracle, but it would need to be a big March miracle to impact this drought,” Lorance said.

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

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