CVP farmers face uncertainty on water supplies


Issue Date: March 8, 2017
By Christine Souza
The Sierra Nevada snowpack stands at near-record levels, according to the California Department of Water Resources. But the federal Central Valley Project has remained cautious about announcing water allocations for agricultural water contractors, saying it would wait until the middle or end of this month to release an initial allocation for those customers.
Photo/Dale Kolke, DWR

"We have this question mark out there of what we're going to do"—that's how farmer Dan Errotabere describes the uncertainty facing many farmers who buy water delivered by the federal Central Valley Project.

In its initial water announcement, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP, said it could not yet make a specific allocation for water service contractors south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The CVP was able to allocate 100 percent supplies to water users in its Friant Division on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, and had earlier allocated 100 percent supplies to Sacramento River settlement contractors and San Joaquin River exchange contractors.

For south-of-delta contractors, however, the bureau said only that it expects to deliver a minimum of 900,000 acre-feet of water through a combination of 2017 CVP supplies and water carried over from last year.

Errotabere, who farms in Riverdale and serves on the Westlands Water District board, said the lack of specificity hamstrings farmers "because there's no number that they can work with for planting."

By this time of year, he said, farmers should already have crops in the ground, adding that a fair amount of land could be left idle as a result of the delayed CVP water allocation.

"Everybody who farms has to farm ultra-conservatively, and that's not necessarily in the best interest of their operation," Errotabere said. "Whether it be tomatoes, garlic or other crops, you've already made those commitments and decisions, so there is no last-minute switch. "

Rod Cardella, who farms in the Westlands district near Mendota, said the district estimated the ultimate CVP allocation could be between 35 and 40 percent.

"You look at the dams and the situation, why shouldn't it be 60 or 70 (percent)? How do you play this thing? If you plan on 60 or 70 percent, you may not have enough water to finish your crops. So we can do some planting but we can't maximize our efficiency because we don't know what they are going to give us. Personally, I'm very frustrated," Cardella said.

"If we plant too much and we don't have the water, we're in trouble, and then if we don't plant enough, we lose money because we've got such a big overhead with the land rents and tractor payments," Cardella said. "The only way to cover that is you try to farm all of your acres."

The lack of a specific allocation also affects CVP contractors north of the delta, such as Glenn County dairy farmer Gilbert Goedhart of Artois.

"We are basically in limbo," Goedhart said.

"Do I need to buy more feed from the neighbors that do have water? Or do I feed more hay or more grain?" he said. "We're going to plant corn silage anyway, with or without the district water. I may have to fallow some land, but it just depends."

Mike Vereschagin, who farms in Orland within the Orland-Artois Water District, said he believes the district could ultimately receive a full allocation from the CVP.

"(The bureau) said they have to work out the ESA (Endangered Species Act) issues, but it doesn't make any sense with everything overflowing right now," Vereschagin said.

The CVP announcement came a day before the state Department of Water Resources issued its March snow survey results, which showed the Sierra snowpack at a near-record 185 percent of average for the date. Most of the state's key reservoirs hold higher-than-average supplies of water.

"Just look at the numbers," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. "If the CVP can't assure full supplies to all of its customers this year, what would be needed for that to happen?

"We understand this is a fish-first system now," he continued, "because federal fisheries agencies have the first and last call on CVP water. We know the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act that Congress passed last year will help. But we obviously need to take further action to modernize our water system, our laws and our policies."

Jason Peltier, San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority executive director, said "ever-increasing environmental demands" on the CVP have had "real consequences for people and the economy."

Bureau officials told CVP agricultural contractors to expect an initial water allocation in mid-to-late March, as federal agencies assess hydrological factors, river flows and accumulation of rainfall and snowpack.

"Other things that come into play are where we are with the storage, what are our needs going to be to get through the summer with delta operations, water quality, meeting other water right obligations and continuing to protect endangered species and other fishery resources," CVP Operations Manager Ron Milligan said.

The announcement of 100 percent supplies for the CVP Friant Division came as welcome news for Tulare County farmer Zack Stuller.

In the summer of 2015, Stuller faced a second year of no CVP water deliveries, which combined with a lack of groundwater supplies to lead to abandonment of some citrus groves on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

"One-hundred percent is good news down here. It's the first time we have seen it in a long time," said Stuller, who works for Sun Pacific, a grower, packer and shipper of citrus and other crops.

"It is a winter like this that shows all of us how unprepared we are for crazy weather events and how much additional water that we could potentially put to more beneficial uses, rather than sending it to the ocean in an uncontrolled manner," Stuller said.

On the Westside, Errotabere said the lack of an allocation of surface water deliveries will also affect recovery of the region's groundwater table.

"Groundwater management works only with surface water deliveries," he said. "If we get a lower allocation number, there's still going to be groundwater pumping, and we shouldn't be doing any of that this year. So, we can't even find recovery when it comes."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.