It's starting to look like a drought year for California farmers who depend on water from the federal government.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday that most farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta who get water from the federal Central Valley Project will receive just 20 percent of their requested allocation this year.
Although the numbers could change and the allocations could increase this spring, the initial figures reflect the abysmal precipitation California has received so far this winter. "We have extremely low snowpack and limited anticipated runoff," said David Murillo, the bureau's regional director.
The agency said it can't yet provide an initial allocation figure for many Sacramento Valley water agencies because of the lack of rain and the legal requirement that plenty of water be kept in Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in California, to protect endangered species of Chinook salmon.
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Those left in the dark for the time being includes some urban agencies in the Sacramento area such as Placer County Water Agency and the San Juan Water District, although officials stressed that those agencies aren't in danger of running short of water.
Still, the announcement was sobering. Despite last winter's record rainfall, Californians must "prepare for the potential of return to drought conditions," said Federico Barajas, deputy regional manager of the bureau.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack is just 20 percent of normal and most of the state has received rainfall levels that are well below average.
So far, however, conditions aren't as bad as during the worst of California's five-year drought. In some years, farmers south of the Delta received no water from the Central Valley Project, prompting many of them to dramatically increase the amount of water they pumped out of the ground.
Last winter's record Northern California rainfall filled most of the state's reservoirs and will ensure that most of the irrigation districts and municipal agencies that belong to the CVP will get at least some water from the feds.
At the San Juan Water District in suburban Sacramento, for instance, the reservoir conditions provide a cushion against the uncertainty of not receiving an initial allocation.
"The good news is that Folsom Lake has a lot of water in it," said San Juan general manager Paul Helliker, whose agency pulls water from the reservoir and has supplies outside of the Central Valley Project. "That does give us some comfort."
The State Water Project has set an initial allocation of 20 percent for all of its farm and municipal customers. The CVP doesn't distribute its water equally, however, because some of its customers have special historic water rights that provide for more generous deliveries. While many of the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are getting an initial allocation of only 20 percent, others have been told to expect 30 percent or more. The "settlement contractors," a select group of Sacramento Valley rice farmers, have been given an initial allocation of 100 percent.
The short-term weather forecast does offer some relief. The National Weather Service said the Sierra is expected to get as much as 8 inches of new snow starting late Wednesday. Because it's so cold, snow levels could drop to as low as 1,000 feet. However, forecasters said the incoming storm isn't expected to bring heavy precipitation.