New water year brings a grim picture

Issue Date: October 15, 2008
Kate Campbell

After a summer in which drought conditions and court rulings combined to cause fallowing of fields and abandonment of crops, San Joaquin Valley water managers say there's little reason for optimism in the new water year.

The new state water year began Oct. 1, but officials have warned it will take several good water years to replenish California's shriveled supply. The federal Central Valley Project is carrying over about 3.9 million acre-feet of water, 35 percent of system capacity, into 2009.

The 15-year carry-over average, however, is 6.7 million acre-feet. Carry-over storage in CVP facilities represents the combined amount of water remaining at the end of the water year in Shasta, Trinity, Folsom and New Melones reservoirs and the federal share of the joint federal/state San Luis Reservoir.

Those participating in a mid-September water tour conducted by the California Farm Water Coalition found water storage at San Luis Reservoir at just 12 percent of capacity.

"What was made clear during the tour is the system's shortcomings, given today's demands on the water system, including the effect of population growth and environmental needs," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau water resources director.

The pumps at San Luis Reservoir are nearly dry in the photo on the right taken in late September. Bureau of Reclamation photo at left shows the same pumps at the reservoir during pre-drought times, when the pumps were nearly submerged.

"Most concerning is the ability to replenish off-stream storage facilities like San Luis Reservoir," he said. "Right now, it's a mud hole. Our supply cushions and safety valves have been taken away."

"We're looking at a circumstance today where we have about the same amount of water in storage as we did in the single worst recorded drought year in state history, 1977," Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager of Westlands Water District, told tour participants.

"But now we have twice the number of people and that makes (water managers) pretty nervous," Peltier said.

Westlands buys water from the CVP, which took the unusual step of reducing water allocations this year. Water supplies had already been constrained for people south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta because of dry weather and a court decision reserving more water for a protected fish, the delta smelt. In June, citing "extremely dry" conditions, the CVP told its farm customers it could supply only 40 percent of contract water, down from its earlier projection of 45 percent. The cut forced some farmers to abandon crops they had already planted.

"If we have a critically dry year, we could end up with a zero allocation next year," Peltier said. "The modeling shows it can happen, and that's before factoring in the effects of court-ordered pumping restrictions to protect the delta smelt."

As farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley face that grim prospect, those in the eastern valley brace for what water managers say would be an "unprecedented" situation.

Millerton Lake, behind Friant Dam, now holds about 40 percent of its capacity, lower than average for this time of year. The facility is primarily used for flood controlh—but that could change next year.

Farmers on the east side of the valley have been buying about 1.5 million acre-feet of water through the federal water project, which is delivered through canals operated by the Friant Water Authority. They also rely on a coordinated program that includes groundwater use.

"The problems we face are not only the lack of precipitation above Millerton Lake in the upper San Joaquin River basin, but also the status of the delta and restrictions on water transfers," said Mario Santoyo, Friant Water Users Authority assistant general manager.

"Basically we got through 2008, but the hydrologic conditions are such that we expect a drought season coming up," he said.

Downstream from Friant Dam, the Lower Tule River Irrigation District supplies irrigation water to about 100,000 acres of farmland, about a third of it in permanent crops. One of the largest irrigation districts in California, the district uses a combination of groundwater and supplies from the CVP.

"If 2009 ends up looking anything like 2008, there's a good chance the CVP may have to make exchange contractor water available from the San Joaquin River that's being stored behind Millerton Dam," said Dan Vink, Lower Tule River Irrigation District general manager.

"It would be unprecedented for us to take water from the dam and not from the delta," Vink said. "If it were to happen, it would have a significant effect on local water supplies."

Santoyo agrees: "That has never happened before in our history. We hope it doesn't happen, but it illustrates how bad things are."

The Kern County Water Agency is the second largest customer of the State Water Project and agency officials say the outlook for the 2009 water year is as bleak for them, too. The agency relies on water transferred from the delta for about a third of the surface water used in Kern County.

"In 2008, which was classified as critically dry, our allocation from the state water project was cut to 35 percent of our contract amount," said Curtis Creel, water resources manager for Kern County Water Agency. "Our total county average has been about 70 percent in past years, so we had a pretty significant amount of water to make up."

The agency participates, along with a handful of other rural water districts, in the Kern Water Bank. Located in the southwestern San Joaquin Valley, the underground facility can store 1 million acre-feet of water on a long-term basis. It's the largest direct-recharge water-banking project in the world.

It's also the reason the impacts of water shortages weren't more devastating in 2008 for farmers and communities in Kern County. Even so, Kern County crop losses in 2008 due to drought totaled about $70 million.

"We were able to make up much of this year's shortage by relying on stored groundwater and this advanced planning helped significantly," Creel said. "But that does not mean there weren't significant crop losses due to fallowing and abandonment."

Creel says farmers cut back on their water use and that rationing by districts was widespread.

"We believe it is possible in 2009 that the state water project may announce allocations of 10 percent to 15 percent of allotment," Creel said. "At that level of reduction, we won't be able to extract water fast enough to cover the shortfall."

He said it's possible permanent plantings of orchards and vineyards would have to be removed or abandoned under that scenario, causing significant losses for farmers in the agency's service area.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said 2008 included heightened activity in the water transfer market and that groundwater pumping increasingly became a necessity to finish crops or protect permanent plantings.

"Many farmers have struggled to make it through this year's dismal irrigation season," Wade said. "More than 100,000 acres of cropland was fallowed and more than 1,000 full-time jobs were lost."

Orland almond grower Greg Overton, second vice president of Glenn County Farm Bureau, was part of the Leadership Farm Bureau class that participated in the tour and called it "an eye opener."

He said given the dire water outlook, it's clear new water storage and conveyance facilities are needed.

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at To read earlier stories in this series, visit

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